What Young Catechetical Leaders Need

A couple weeks ago I responded to a request from a catechetical colleague and friend to consider working on a national project. After thinking and discerning about it I decided to politely refuse but found that, in doing so, I had some things to say. Indeed, what should have been a simple “no, thank you” email quickly blossomed into a 1,300-word essay about the needs of young catechetical leaders.

Below is a highly edited version of that email. I don’t mean to speak for all young Catholic leaders, but I would love to hear reactions from other young adults working in Catholic ministry — feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message via my contact page.

Dear T—-,

Thank you again for your invitation. I am gratified by the words you shared expressing your confidence in me and my gifts.

Unfortunately I find that I can’t muster much enthusiasm right now for committee work. As I mentioned, my experience with national committees is a mixed bag – good, committed, energized people who are often ignored and who do not possess a means of energizing the organization with their ideas. With a new baby, plenty of diocesan work to keep me busy, and other projects I’m excited to pursue, I don’t think I would be effective in breaking through this organizational culture.

In particular I find myself pessimistic about the ability of national ecclesial bodies to attract and tap into the energy, charisms, and commitment of young Catholics, in no small part due to the experiences I have had. In some corners of the Church there is a consistent undertone directed towards young adults that we are there to learn or be learned about, rather than having anything meaningful to say on our own behalf. This was made very clear to me when, at a gathering of national catechetical leaders, a well-known and respected leader in catechetical circles cut me off three times as I tried to respond to a point he was making to me during a hallway conversation before he walked off. At that moment he was the face of an organization that didn’t care to hear my story.

The failure of many national organizations to make good use of new media is also disheartening to me as someone who has tried to educate catechetical leaders on “best practices” for engaging the faithful through new media and who sees it used so well in other corners of the Church (including, surprisingly, the USCCB).

You may recall that, at the end of our conversation last December, you made the statement that “I have a deep loyalty to [X organization]”. I reflected on that afterwards and realized that I have no loyalty to the organization – not because I see it as unimportant or because of my shorter history with it, but because my loyalty is to the ministry of catechesis (as is, I know, yours). Any interest I have in or energy I give to the organiztion is directly proportional to how helpful I see it to catechesis and my role as a catechetical leader.

In this I don’t think I am alone among younger Catholics. Last October Rod Dreher recounted this anecdote following a meeting of friends of First Things magazine:

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.

The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear…

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

This resonated strongly with me – I’m not interested in reforming organizations that have outlasted their usefulness. This is a reality that ecclesial organizations will have to face if they want to attract young adults – insofar as they seem to ignore the concerns of young catechetical leaders (and to be clear, those concerns tend to be very different from the concerns of older catechetical leaders who are driving the agenda), these organizations will appear useless to those young leaders.

I think such organizations have a place in the Church – they have not outlived their usefulness. Indeed, my words here are born out of a place of love and respect for the good work such organization have done over the decades. If I sound harsh it is only because I want such organizations to succeed in the future. But I do not see many of these organizations’ names surfacing in the catechetical circles in which I travel – young catechetical leaders see them as largely irrelevant to their ministry, if they think about them at all.

We don’t need organizations for their newsletter – there are plenty of blogs with more (and often better) content. We don’t need them for their conferences – we can see the same speakers in webinars and have the same lobby conversations on Twitter and Facebook (and year-round, too). We don’t need them to stay connected to the national catechetical scene – we have myriad ways of accessing resources from publishers and the USCCB.

What we need are professional organizations that will acknowledge, listen to, and engage young catechetical leaders as leaders with our own expertise and experiences to bring to the table, even when we do things differently and challenge the “old guard”. This generation is not willing to “wait our turn” – we have plenty of opportunities, thanks to new technologies, to strike out on our own and form our own intentional communities of support and mutual learning. Current national leaders could be a willing partner in those conversations. Thus far they have chosen to stay within their own walls.