While my full-time ministry is as a judge on the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal and as the associate Director for the Permanent Deacon Formation Program in the Diocese of Erie, my parish assignment is at St. Luke’s parish. St. Luke’s is one of the larger parishes in the Diocese of Erie. It has a full-time pastor and two permanent deacons assigned to the parish. I’m one of the deacons. The parish often has the benefit of newly ordained priests serving there for six months to a year, to give them a chance to get their feet wet before being assigned to a parish of their own. It boasts an elementary school, which is an accomplishment in this era of closing schools and parishes that are no longer financially viable. Adjacent to the parish is the campus of Mercyhurst University, which is owned by the Mercy Sisters. The neighborhood is residential with a lot of older families who have been in the area for decades, though the demographics are changing with many of the homes being rented out to the university students as housing and other homes being sold to younger and less affluent families.
One of the things that strikes me as I distribute Communion at Mass is the makeup of the congregation. A great many of the people are eligible to be AARP (American Association of Retired People) members. AARP starts sending the membership applications when you hit your 50th birthday. I’m not putting down that age range, as it is the age range in which I find myself. I mention it because any population that has a promising future should be predominately comprised of younger people. As older populations die off, who will replace them? This causes me to worry for the future of the parish.
This isn’t just a challenge faced by St. Luke’s Parish. Research show that the largest response group over the past decade in surveys that ask for religious affiliation/identification is “none”. This is especially the case among people in their thirties and younger. Many of the “nones” come from Catholic families but no longer affiliate with the church or even consider themselves Catholic.
This is not a radically new phenomenon. There is a long tradition in the Church where young people raised in Catholic families abandon the faith during their teen years and early twenties. Often, they explore other religious traditions, searching for a better fit to their own spiritual quest. Many times, they return to their Catholic heritage a few years later, only by now they have made it their own and not just something inherited from their parents. St. Augustine is a classic example of this process. I went through a similar process myself as a young man. Kaya Oakes is a widely-published author on the “Nones” generation recently wrote a book on the same topic, describing her experience as a returned “none”. What seems different about the current situation is that many fewer “nones” return to the church as they get older than was common in the past.
There has been a lot of talk about the “New Evangelization” in recent years to counter this negative trend. It is my impression that the “New Evangelization” is simply presenting the Good News to people (plain old evangelization) but in a way that appeals to modern sensibilities. So, for example, Pope Francis makes use of Skype, Twitter, Facebook and other social media to reach people. You hear of gatherings called “Religion on Tap” for persons in their 20’s and 30’s. These are gatherings in pubs and grills where people discuss religion over beer, wine, wings and ribs.
In this series of Along the Way columns, I’d like to reflect on the process of handing on the faith today. There are unique obstacles and opportunities to be considered, as well as the perennial elements of our faith that will always be with us.
In one form or another religion has been part of the human experience as far back as human beings are identifiable apart from other primates. Religion can be described as a social institution; a pattern of behavior and interactions within a society that serve a social purpose. In this sense, family is a social institution, as are government structures and economic organizations (banks, merchants, manufacturers, etc.).
Social institutions are not static. They change, as the society of which they are a part undergo change. Major shifts in the demographics of a society or in its economy usually produce significant shifts in the social institutions of that society, including its religious institutions. The way religion is practiced in Palau or the Mariana Islands today is quite different from the way it was practiced four hundred years ago. So, when we pass on our faith we are doing it in the context of a social institution that we have been given, which we have interpreted and applied to our lives, which we value, and which we are trying to pass on to the next generation in a manner that will be meaningful for them. In a society where there is very little change, this is a relatively easy task. You just hand on to the next generation what you have received; plain and simple! However, in a society that is undergoing rapid and complex change, the process can be difficult. What you received and how you received it thirty or forty years ago may not speak in a meaningful way to someone living in the 21st century.