ISIS is an immoral organization. In recent weeks we’ve read of how they’ve slaughtered massive numbers of Christians and Yezidis either through direct slaughter or by driving them into a mountain trap and letting them starve to death.
We initially think these are just poor desperate people. Yet many of them aren’t. British intelligence suspected the guy who beheaded James Foley was a UK citizen. One young man from my home town (Calgary, Canada) was in an ISIS video burning his passport.
One of the things that has bothered me these weeks is wondering what would motive a young man with a comfortable life in a 1st world country to go live in backward place in such squalor. Then I realize its religion. It’s obviously a twisted distorted view of religion that leads you to make rivers run red with blood, but that’s their motivation.
Why do they get such a response? I think the all-too obvious answer is that they ask for that response. They present an ideal to young people of giving up everything for a cause, and young people respond. They even respond to a false cause like ISIS.
There are many other examples of a high ideal motivating young people. Youth respond to a high ideal. (Since Christ is our ideal, we have the highest ideal to present teens.)
Douglas Hyde noted that at its height, the Communist party only had 36 million members yet it ruled over 1/3 of mankind and brought fear into the rest of mankind. Communism was presented as an ideal. This was so ingrained that Hyde notes that the only universal among all members of communist parties is “their idealism, their zeal, dedication, devotion to the cause and willingness to sacrifice.” Once he converted from Communism to Catholicism, he wrote Dedication and Leadership which remains a classic (well worth reading) on how the Communists developed this leadership and how we Catholics can too.
I remember a story I heard about a priest visiting the missions in Africa. The pastor he was visiting was complaining on the way about how hard it was to get young people involved. Then, as they approached the town they saw a whole throng of young people handing out pamphlets. The visitor asked who they were to hear that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The local pastor even lamented that most of them were ex-Catholics. The Catholics hadn’t given them an ideal or a challenge but someone had.
I even have a personal story. A kid who was my best friend in high school became Mormon. I was over at his house later and his mom – although living at about the poverty line – made certain that she made her tithe. His family had stopped practicing their Catholic faith a few years earlier due to an exceptionally dumb comment of a priest. The Mormons showed up, offered a community, an ideal, and a challenge; they took it.
How often do we hear people who attend mass most Sundays feel no repentance that a child’s sport event caused them to miss mass one Sunday (or even families who feel no issue with missing mass every Sunday)? Johnny’s pee-wee hockey game is obviously more important than mass. Or what are our expectations of teens? Show up once a month to youth group where there’s tons of soda and snacks and don’t sleep around – unfortunately, that’s it sometimes.
In Happier, Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar points out that when people are challenged way below their skills they are bored. In Forming Intention Disciples, Sherry Weddell argues that this is happening in the Catholic Church in North America – the lack of challenge bores people out of the practice of their faith. Sherry points out that “My spiritual needs weren’t being met” is one of the reasons over 70% of Catholics who become Protestant leave; she even gives examples of how spiritual growth pushed people out of the Church.
We need to challenge all Catholics, but especially youth, if we want to get a positive faith response from them.
How? I want to give a few ideas in three categories: avoiding sin, going further and presentation. These are not exhaustive but a few suggestions.
- The definition of Christian (and a Catholic) is someone who has a relationship with Christ. It isn’t defined by warming a pew at a Catholic Church most Sundays or sending your kids to Catholic schools
- A certain time every day dedicated to prayer and/or reading the Bible is absolutely necessary for every Christian.
- We shouldn’t be timid of sexual mores. I wouldn’t start with them as we always start with Jesus and explain morality as a response of love to him. As well, often once someone is involved in these sins habitually, it’s too late for them to learn. I bet the majority of teenage and adult males sitting in your parish on Sunday watched porn in the last week and the majority of 18-40 year old females took the pill in the last 24 hours. Chastity is a virtue thus it is a direction not a line.
- Why should prayer be only a minimum? I’ve taught 11 year olds to do lectio divina and had them do it 10 minutes each day. If we are really disciples, we’ll want to be with Jesus – heaven is nothing more than spending time with him.
- We need to challenge teens and adults to live their faith in daily life. Why are we so afraid to do something simple like say grace at the restaurant or in the lunch-room? Why do we accept the distortions of the media, teachers or coworkers about the faith? Why don’t we know our faith? Is faith something for Sunday or is it also for a 10am Tuesday class or meeting?
- All Catholics – but teens especially – need to be challenged to spread Jesus. This can take 2 forms: charity and evangelization. Serving at the homeless shelter if it doesn’t involve school credits immediately falls to the bottom of the list; but since Jesus is present in each of those people, we’re putting Jesus on the bottom of the list. And evangelizing? Do we Catholics do that? We have a stronger motive than the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists to be knocking on doors – not only do we have the fullness of the Gospel, we have Jesus who wants to enter physically into us.
Presenting a Challenge:
- When we present these challenges, we need to present them as what Ben-Shahar calls self-concordant goals – those which we choose. For going further, there are different options: St Anthony of the Desert (prayer), St Vincent de Paul (charity), St Thomas Aquinas (study), and St Anthony Marie Claret (evangelization) are all saints.
- The first step is to develop a relationship with Jesus and begin basic apostolates. Don’t over-burden someone. I remember I tried to get a young man to lead a team of middle school guys but he didn’t feel ready; he was ready the next year and had I pushed him, he probably would have burnt out.
- We need to be constantly providing material for Catholics in our parishes to learn more. I think the Lighthouse media CD stacks and Matthew Kelly’s free book every Christmas are good first steps here but we need to provide more stuff: specific material for certain professions and roles, prayer materials and groups, etc.
- We need to provide community. Suburban mega-parishes tend to adapt the same semi-anonymous existence as their surroundings. Some parishes have found that breaking people into groups of 8-12 where they can all be friends helps break down the anonymity (cf. Rebuilt) – I’ve found the same in youth ministry.
- Youth ministry – or any Catholic group – can’t subsist just in itself. We need to challenge everyone who shows up to prayer and service. The measure of your ministry is not how many showed up but what they did.
- In all this, remember people’s talents. My mom is a math genius so she does the books for several Catholic groups run by women so the other women can focus on charity and evangelization.
We need to create ministry – especially youth ministry – in the Catholic Church that challenges people if we ever want to be a dynamic Church able to answer man’s questions today and tomorrow.
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