The migration of young people away from Catholicism

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by Harleen Dhillon 

On Oct 19th, over a hundred middle- and older-aged adults gathered in St. Jerome’s University (SJU) to hear David Wells, a Catholic educator, speaker, and author, on how to recall young people to Catholicism. Wells gave a special lecture as part of SJU’s Lectures in Catholic Experience series.

Wells drew lessons from his own experiences and the wisdom of others, such as the Gospel and the Pope. He preached a message of love, mercy, and acceptance.

“If you begin with the premise that young people are a problem to be solved, you are already in a position of judgement. You are superior in the relationship […]” he said. “You have to come to any crisis in the Church with the eyes of love. You can do no other thing than to offer mercy first.”

Wells emphasized the importance of showing virtues and not losing joy when attempting to convince young people to come to Church. It is authenticity, not rationality, that people search for.

“Many of us will be converted not by arguments, but by virtues […] I’ll tell you what will bring young people to Church – if we cheer up […] they’ve got to see your virtues.” he said.

Outside the lecture hall, some of Wells’ books were displayed for sale. Alex Baker, Graphic Designer at Words Worth Books, was tasked with selling them, but she does not believe in any of the ideas she was selling that day.

“When questions of ‘why do you do/say/believe that’ always sort of boil down to just “have faith” it always felt like something of a cop-out.” Baker said.

“Religions shouldn’t push evangelicalism, and to a somewhat lesser extent I would like it if no one introduced young children to religion. I think faith, however you define that (religious, spiritual, even faith that there’s nothing), is something that should (and possibly can only) be reached individually,” she said.

In terms of why people are leaving Catholicism, Wells pointed to the need for a sense of belonging in youth.

“The first time you walk into a Church, you need the smile of the person sitting next to you. It’s enormous,” Wells said. “If we don’t cheer up and if we don’t tell our faces, people are not going to believe us.”

Baker was not satisfied with this logic, especially as issues such as sexual abuse in the Church and persecution of LGBT+ people was largely ignored.

One thing that [bothered me was], when talking about the reasoning found for young people to be leaving, it was not sexual abuse scandals,“ Baker said. “Just glazing over the topic once or twice, without stopping once to acknowledge it when you’re trying to sing Catholicism’s praises was very elephant in the room, [in my opinion].”

Wells only briefly addressed scandals in the Catholic Church, but talked at length about “coming out as Christian”. In an anecdote about his daughter’s experience at school, Wells described the contrast between people’s reactions when a young man came out as gay versus when his daughter “came out” as Christian”.

“What has happened now is that being a Christian minority, or indeed any religious minority, is to be seen as [ridiculous]. It’s a kind of passive persecution. You [must] be strong now to be under the age of thirty and show religious conviction.” he said.

Baker believes otherwise. Religious conviction in itself is not a reason for persecution, rather it is cause for respect.

“People who find their faith on their own, as long as it’s not forced on others, I absolutely respect because they take what they need from it.” she said.

Wells talked of differences in how people treat each other and highlighted the need for self reflection.

“We categorize each other, we stereotype each other, and we lose each other’s dignity.” Wells said.

“Is it possible that […] we just need to take a step back and just say ‘do we need to look at things differently?’” he said. “Have you ever stood in a religious place and thought, ‘I think it was supposed to be better than this.’?”

Baker, like many others, finds no need for organized religion.

“That sense of something more I never felt in any church I have felt while sitting out in nature. There’s a rocky outcropping on Mount Nemo […] and sitting there, I do feel the power of nature.” she said.

For more information on the Lectures on Catholic Experience series, visit https://www.sju.ca/lectures-catholic-experience-2018-2019-0.