Teachers embrace youths’ changing expressions of faith

Like many who work with Catholic youth, Robert McCarty, D. Min., sees a decline in belief and practice of Catholicism in today’s young people. “Think of a person who you know has left the Catholic Church. Now turn to the person next to you and say that person’s name, bring them into consciousness here today. At what age do you think that person decided to leave the Church or not identify as Catholic?”

The answer, to the surprise of more than 500 Catholic school educators in the room, was age 13. Calling on the data presented by the Saint Mary’s Press research study, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, McCarty stated, “Seventy-four percent of the young adults sampled said they no longer identified themselves as Catholic between the ages of 10 and 20, with the median age being 13 years old.”

The 2003 study of Catholic School and Disaffiliation from Catholicism by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) was presented by McCarty as part of a professional development day for diocesan teachers and administrators held at All Saints Catholic School in Jupiter on Nov. 8. McCarty, the project coordinator for this study, is a pastoral ministry consultant and has published various works on the nature and dynamics of Catholic youth. He is also an active volunteer in his parish youth ministry and catechetical program at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fulton, MD. His focus on the disaffiliation of Catholic youth addressed the difficult questions schools and parishes struggle to answer.

“Why is the Church losing importance for young people? Why is faith losing importance? Why are young people increasingly disaffiliating from the Church, regardless of school and parish involvement? We don’t have a ‘youth’ problem, we have a ‘faith’ problem. How does the faith community pass on faith in a postmodern world?” McCarty posed.

The reasons, explained McCarty, lie in young people’s hunger for meaning, purpose, connection, recognition, social justice and a desire to seek what is holy. “Students and young adults have the desire to be recognized as having gifts to share. They want to be individualized and appreciated for who they are. They seek to find belonging, which leads to behaving, and finally believing. A pattern which deviates from the Baby Boomer generation’s mentality of the opposite: believing, behaving, belonging.

McCarty explained that disaffiliation happens over time after a series of experiences or unanswered questions. “It happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one day there is that one last ‘chip’ that breaks off a big chunk and they are ‘done.’ One unresolved discrepancy follows another, until finally an individual decides that ‘none of it makes sense anymore,’ or ‘I just don’t buy it anymore,’ so ‘why stay?’”

In his presentation, McCarty spent time interviewing young adults, who grew up Catholic and have gone through a period of questioning their Catholic convictions. “In this video, I interviewed a young woman named Rachel, who associates her childhood as being ‘very Catholic.’ She tells us her father is a deacon and that there was a pressure to be exemplary in faith. By the end of the video, Rachel tells us that after high school and college she felt the freedom to question, and she eventually fell away from the Church. She identifies herself now as Catholic-ish,” said McCarty.

So what happened during that time of questioning? McCarty highlights that youth, in general, are creating their own rituals in order to find belonging. He noted that Rachel found outlets outside of the Church that fed her need to belong, behave, and believe because she felt unable to express her doubts in a safe environment. This, said McCarty, happens to many Catholic youth who feel they are unable to question or express uncertainty about Church teachings.

“There is a community-building website called The Dinner Party,” said McCarty. “It was created by two young women in their twenties who bonded over the loss of a loved one. They posted a video of their meeting for dinner regularly to cope with their grief, and it blew up on Facebook. Now, The Dinner Party has groups all over the U.S. where young people can get together to find community through their grief. There are manuals and guidelines for hosting a party. This is an example of the new rituals young people are creating in efforts to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

McCarty also mentioned that modern rituals like gender reveal parties and involvement in fitness groups—think the CrossFit community—are other instances of the type of culture young people gravitate towards. “I’ve had many colleagues say that fitness is a type of ‘church’ for young people. The camaraderie, the support system and the inclusion they find in these groups is a strong example of the environment Catholic youth seek in both secular and spiritual activities,” McCarty said.

McCarty concluded his presentation by connecting the key points that the Saint Mary’s Press research study outlines. “If we just take a moment to analyze and process the type of culture and ideals young people value, we will see how the Church can adapt to the evolving needs of Catholic youth. In school and parish settings, we need to shift from a recruitment framework to an accompaniment paradigm. Our primary commitment is to be authentic witnesses, accompanying young Catholics on their spiritual journey, and to be the welcoming, supportive community that might be attractive to them.”

Ann Frearson, campus minister and chair of the Math department at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, felt that McCarty “hit the issue right on” and that “we need to place more importance on engaging youth so that we meet them where they are.” Frearson expressed that she will seek to affirm her students more in and out of academic settings as “made in the image and likeness of God, who are vital members of the body of Christ.”

Katherine Murphy, an elementary teacher at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, felt that “her eyes were opened” by the information McCarty articulated. “I know now just how deeply I can influence my students, especially at a young age. I will definitely apply this information to my personal teaching style in being a support system to youth who feel the need to examine their faith,” said Murphy.

To learn more about the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Palm Beach, follow the Office of Catholic Schools on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @DoPBCatholicSchools. Visit diocesepbschools.org for more news and information on the Diocese of Palm Beach Catholic schools. For more information on the Dr. Robert McCarty and the Saint Mary’s Press research study, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, visit catholicresearch.smp.org.