It is no secret that Confirmation has become the sacrament of exit. Most young people lapse immediately the pressure to attend classes or Mass is reduced. But we should not normalise it as inevitable. In a large, thriving London parish the catechists ask me to give a talk to parents on how to keep their children Catholic. I begin with the only formula of which I am sure: ‘‘Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.’’ The rest is merely some theoretical musings from one who is not a biological parent, but is a spiritual father.
Because God respects our freedom, Catholic parents can only lead a horse to water. But their being there is equally important, quietly but visibly drawing life from the stream. What impressed me about the home-schooling families I met recently in America was that the parents had continued their Catholic formation throughout adulthood. They follow Bible studies or catechetical programmes at church or at home. Thus they are able to catechise their children confidently and convincingly, demonstrating that the faith has intellectual rigour, that studying it is not solely the preserve of children preparing for sacraments and that, like anything else in life worth having, it requires commitment. They all also have some apostolate in their parish, despite their busy lives.
‘‘Does your family always talk about religion all the time?’’ Charles Ryder asks the teenage Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited. ‘‘Not all the time. It’s just a subject that naturally comes up, doesn’t it?’’ she replies. Questions of how to practise the faith will naturally come up in a family where it is less a question of ‘‘do as I tell you’’ and more an invitation to ‘‘do as I do’’. The catechism reminds parents to educate their children “by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well-suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom.”
This is the broader culture in which faith practice flourishes. It can therefore be actively undermined by exposing children to opposite values: the kind promulgated in EastEnders, for example, or in a high percentage of the content of the media the average teenager is consuming. In a digital age, children will easily become what they watch. They are at risk from an unfettered internet, before we even start talking about pornography. More addictive than cocaine, more easily available than alcohol, more damaging to their brain chemistry than either, pornography leaves a shard of glass in the eye that means everything looked at is distorted, not just flesh. It damages right reason itself, because of the enslavement to the next dopamine high.
Mass non-attendance often seems to be the first symptom, but it happens because people stop praying. While the introduction of evening and vigil Masses may have been intended for those who work on Sunday morning, we have lost our sense of Sabbath, of a Day of the Lord, different in character from the rest of the week, a time to prioritise worship as what gives shape and meaning to our week. To encourage children regularly to fit Mass around shopping, social or sporting commitments is already to cede its priority.
How does one engage with the teenage mantra that Mass is boring? I usually start by agreeing, and pointing out that cleaning your teeth every night is boring, but that is no reason not to do it. They are, of course, right in many cases. The average Sunday Mass in the parish takes 40 minutes to get to the Offertory, and that time is largely an exercise in listening to readings or preaching.
I suggest that the teenager is challenged to experience a quiet, low, weekday Mass, which is less than half the length, and has a more intimate atmosphere. Sometimes the resistance to Sunday Mass might not be just that of teenage disaffection. It is possible that they are reacting as consumers who have become jaded by community-focused horizontal liturgy, indifferent preaching and bad music. Encourage them to try other Masses or preachers. In London especially one can find liturgy to suit all tastes: it is possible to “shop around”. Not ideal, but fully justified if it helps their practice.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).
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