Youthful idealism is key to the church’s growth


While we’ve been haggling inside the church, our foundation has begun to erode.

For too long the disquieting fact that about a third of baptized Catholics in the U.S. leave the church has been overlooked, in part because our raw numbers increased, largely because we remain the destination of so many new Catholic immigrants.

Now there’s a murmur of a serious discussion going on among Catholics.

“The Catholic Church is confronting a real crisis,” said Sister of St. Joseph Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College and a speaker at a recent forum on Catholic issues at St. Joseph’s University reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan noted in a recent New York Times interview that the lines around Abercombie and Fitch’s Fifth Avenue store outpace the crowds for St. Patrick’s Cathedral this Christmas season, even though, as he says, inside St. Patrick’s “the treasure in there is of eternal value.”

So, what do we do about it?

At the St. Joseph’s meeting, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, an author and research fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, suggested better preaching, music, welcoming and more programs for young children. Father Raymond Kemp, a fellow Woodstock fellow, said that the church needs to tell its story of outreach to the poor because that will appeal to the idealism of young people.

Father Kemp’s suggestion — offered after he noted that “my spiritual director and my shrink told me to be optimistic” — could be brushed off as a bit of bleeding heart hopefulness, without much to back it up.

But those of us who attended the Dec. 1 “Theology on Tap” event sponsored by the Young Adult Ministry for the Camden Diocese under the leadership of Andres Arango, heard a hint of what Father Kemp described via the questions asked by the 100 or so young adults who gathered at a Glassboro pub to hear Bishop Joseph Galante speak on “Why Bother Being Catholic?”

The bishop — without podium, informally seated on a chair addressing a group gathered around tavern tables and bar stools — described his own faith journey, how it was nurtured by the Gospels and the sacraments. And then the program was opened to questions.

While much conversation about matters Catholic revolves around sexuality and authority issues, these young people, by contrast, peppered the bishop with questions about how the church responds to the poor, social justice and peace.

How can we come to know and trust in a loving God when surrounded by the pain and suffering that follows the poverty so present in the Camden Diocese?” asked one. Others followed along a similar track.

“What percentage of the Catholic Church’s budget goes to the poor?”

“Why do we pray in church for our soldiers at war but never the enemy they are killing as the Bible says we should?”

Tough questions indeed. As the bishop responded, the South Jersey young Catholics in attendance paid rapt attention. Even the bartenders and wait staff stopped what they were doing to listen.

Give that audience credit. They were asking the right questions. In those questions may be a key to unlocking the quiet crisis of a slowly-eroding Catholic presence. When the church speaks and lives out peace and social justice, it is reflecting the concerns of youthful idealism.

Peter Feuerherd is communications director for the Diocese of Camden and associate publisher of the Catholic Star Herald.