When older Catholics speak about the younger generation it is usually with an air of despondency. There is good reason for this: the statistics – in parts of the West, at least – are deflating. In the United States, for example, surveys suggest that just two thirds of baptised Catholics practise the faith as adults. Only 13 per cent of those who leave say they are ever likely to return. Thousands are disengaging from the faith each year.
But that is not the whole story. We are a global Church and in some countries – South Korea, for example, or the Democratic Republic of Congo – Catholicism is astonishingly youthful. And it’s easy to overlook our own successes. In Britain, we have the remarkably fruitful Youth 2000 movement, which has helped thousands to deepen their prayer lives and discover their vocations. The Syro-Malabar Church in this country has also been strikingly effective at retaining young people.
When the synod of bishops meets again in October 2018, it will examine this mixed picture. The official theme is “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” – a vague title that cynics suggest is a smokescreen for a radical change such as married priests or women deacons. But there is no evidence of this in the synod’s preparatory document, released last week. The text suggests that synod discussions will focus on “vocational discernment”, that is, “the process by which a person makes fundamental choices, in dialogue with the Lord and listening to the voice of the Spirit, starting with the choice of one’s state in life”. In other words, the synod hopes to enable youngsters to practise Ignatian-style spirituality in daily life.
When the Church speaks about the young it sometimes sounds as if it is describing an alien life form. The preparatory document is anxious to avoid that, insisting that “young people are not objects but agents”. Pope Francis underlines this in his covering letter, inviting youngsters to take part in the worldwide consultation process launched last week.
We hope the synod will pay special attention to why young people leave the Church. In a pastoral letter last weekend, Bishop Philip Egan recalled a conversation with a parishioner who lamented that only two out of 40 newly confirmed youngsters practised their faith. The bishop replied: “You catechised them. You sacramentalised them. But did you convert them?”
The Church in the West is good at “sacramentalising” youngsters, less good at catechising them and even less successful at converting them – leading them to what Bishop Egan calls “a religious experience of meeting Jesus Christ and being called personally by Him with a transformed heart”.
This isn’t as daunting as it sounds. With its emphasis on Eucharistic adoration, Youth 2000 has inspired countless conversions. There are also new catechetical materials that, in Bishop Egan’s words, tackle “the real blockages to faith many people today struggle with: the existence of God, why a good God allows so much suffering in the world, the uniqueness and divinity of Christ, freedom and responsibility, sexuality, and the relationship of science and religion”.
This is a challenge that we can surely meet, if we approach it seriously, with sufficient preparation and, above all, with trust in God, who stirs hearts from one generation to the next.
A priest against the odds
The obituaries for William Peter Blatty, who died last week, described him as a “novelist and filmmaker”. One word they did not use, though he might have appreciated it, is “evangelist”. Blatty’s book The Exorcist, adapted into a famous horror film, is a graphic account of demonic possession, certainly not suitable for all audiences. Yet he himself considered it a version of the greatest story of all: how God’s love can triumph even over the full force of superhuman evil.
Blatty himself, a lifelong Catholic, thought of The Exorcist as a “supernatural detective story”. It was the astonishing discovery of goodness which he wanted to place at the heart of his work. “I cannot recall having a conscious intention to terrify anybody,” he said, “which you may take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying scale.”
While much of popular culture is allergic to Christian themes, the genre Blatty helped to invent – theological horror – has brought the plain reality of spiritual warfare to millions. Cinemagoers who profess to have no interest in religion flock to watch films in which fallen angels attack souls and brave priests invoke the protection of Our Lord and Our Lady.
In later years, Blatty joined the campaign to protect the Catholic identity of his alma mater, Georgetown University. “I have been guided by the light of my Georgetown education, grounded firmly, as I knew it was even in my youth, in the unmatched intellectual wealth of the Catholic Church,” he said. “Each time I faltered, as I often did, that guiding light never failed me.” It gave him, he said, the keys to unlock the faith which his mother passed on.
As we pray for the repose of Blatty’s soul, it is worth pausing on the unlikely lesson of his life’s work: that truth has a natural attractiveness, and can be preached pretty much anywhere.