Reappropriating the Tradition: The Gift of Young Catholics to the Church

The November 2007 issue of Touchstone Magazine had an enlightening symposium on the current state of the Evangelical movement (with a promise of future discussions concerning Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and mainline Protestantism). The comments are frank and honest, pointing out the movement’s shortcomings as well as it successes.

I was especially struck by this passage from Michael Horton:

Sociologist Christian Smith has recently described American spirituality as ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism,’ and he says that this fits those raised in Evangelical churches as well as any others. If Fundamentalism reduced sin to sins (or at least things they considered vices), contemporary Evangelicals seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriages, and happier kids.

I think we have failed to see that emotional summer-camp experiences cannot sustain a robust faith through the trials of real life. So, ironically, while Evangelicalism celebrates reaching the lost, it is losing the reached.

I am concerned that Evangelicalism is proving the thesis that when the gospel is reduced to simplistic jargon and is taken for granted in the life of the church, the next generation even forgets the slogans.

This is not, I think, a problem isolated in Evangelicalism. Certainly my own experience of Catholic catechesis (which, to be fair, took place outside of Catholic schools) reflects some of this same reality. While some of the early faith formation I received was valuable (especially in so far as it was based in a love and knowledge of the scriptures), other experiences were little more than watered-down sentimentality. I often lament that, as a child, I wasn’t introduced to the Communion of Saints, taught how to properly pray the Rosary or exposed to the various faith practices that sustained American Catholicism throughout the centuries. Instead we painted plaster butterflies, made sand drawings and sang songs (many of which featured butterflies).

I suspect that much of this is generational; the catechists who taught me, while of good intentions, were also working out their own renewal of faith following the Second Vatican Council. They were learning, sometimes for the first time, how to appropriate the faith into their own lives and experience not just a knowledge of faith but a real communion with Christ. As a result they sometimes abandoned those practices which did not speak to the challenges of the time.

Unfortunately, having experienced that communion, many never returned to the task of reappropriating the traditions of the faith passed on to them in their youth, instead remaining fixated on the same questions. This isn’t new; every generation seems to take the challenges of youth and relive them into adulthood (who hasn’t heard of the grandparent who lived through the Great Depression, only to become a hoarder of goods and money in fear of reliving those lean days?) and I doubt my generation will be any different. That having been said, this failure to connect the reform to the traditions which proceeded it in the life of the faithful has led to a generation which is starving for authentic catechesis and a solid rock on which to establish its faith.

This dynamic may also have something to do with the declining and aging membership of Catholic groups popularized in the 1970s and 80s — they don’t understand that they aren’t addressing the questions of young Catholics. When I talk to Baby Boomers mystified by the “conservative” faith practices of young (especially Millennial) Catholics, I point out that this is not the reactionary faith they tend to believe it is. Young Catholics aren’t trying to turn back the clock to the 1950s. How could we return to a time before we were born? Instead, the challenge for young Catholics (and, I believe, their particular gift to the universal Church) is the struggle to learn ways of living the faith in a very modern world that is both religiously pluralistic and often indifferent or hostile to faith.

Young Catholics are re-appropriating the traditions of the Church that have largely laid dormant for the past few decades. Without being disrespectful to the Boomers, we didn’t have the luxury of abandoning these practices because many of us never knew them in the first place. As a result young Catholics are delightedly rediscovering the Rosary, Benediction, Holy Hours and other traditional practices as if they were new. In a very real way they are creating a renewal of practice in the Church – in the very best sense of the word.