What Good Catholic Teens Want from the Church

Ultimately what we want is for our children to experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that leads to an unshakeable conversion.

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At 10:30 on a school night I texted my daughter: Is everything okay? She had gone with her friend’s family to watch a ballgame. When she rolled in five minutes later (“I didn’t answer because I didn’t want to text and drive”), what followed was one of those late-night conversations that parents of teens love to hate, but actually we treasure them, because we don’t always get to hear what our teens have to say. What she wanted to talk about was her frustration with the Catholic Church.

 

“My friends are all planning to leave the Church.”

My daughter is extremely sociable and stays in touch with people over time, so she knows a lot of Catholic kids, even in a region where Catholics are a minority. That night at the game, she’d run into a few of them. “I’m not going to name any names,” she told me, “because then you’d call their mothers and warn them. But there are dozens of kids I know who are planning to leave the Church in two years, as soon as they graduate and their parents can’t make them go anymore.”

Some are planning to switch to Evangelical congregations, others are just done with church, period. These kids are representative of young Catholics across the country. The number one thing parents can do to improve the odds is to practice the faith themselves – it’s no guarantee, but it helps. Something else we can do is listen to our teens. Every story is different, because teens are not some uniform blob of irreligion. These are some of the things my daughter mentioned that I’ve heard from others around the country who arepracticing their faith, but who are frustrated and tempted to move elsewhere.

 

“I wish I had friends at church.”

My daughter makes friends everywhere she goes, so if she can’t find friends someplace, we’re pretty sure it’s them not her. She’s tried making friends at church, and so have her siblings. Results vary. Listening to young parents at a parish event this weekend, I heard the same desire from one generation older: They want to make Catholic friends. When I talk to older Catholics who are active in their parish, friendship is something that comes up as a reason they stay. My youngest asked to attend our parish school specifically because she had made friends with some of the girls from school through our parish family ministry, and she wanted to be with them.

Friendship matters. We are made to be in communion with one another. 

 

“I wish we had more Adoration.”

This is another one I hear almost universally from Catholics who want to deepen their relationship with God. 

Adoration is hard. You have to find people who can commit to being there the whole time. It’s often a struggle to get adorers signed up even to cover a few hours. And then when you do figure out a time you can make it work, that turns out not to be a time that works for everyone. Those who put the effort into making Adoration happen feel like people don’t want it after all; those who can’t make it feel like the parish just doesn’t care about them.

It seems like a no-win situation. But almost to a one, what I hear from people who have experienced Adoration is that they long for more. Of course they do. It’s what they are made for.

 

“I wish I missed my parish.”

We talked about some things that her friends’ Evangelical congregations do that she wishes Catholics were better at doing. When she visits her friends’ churches, people are friendly and welcoming and glad to see her. They give her a card where she can check off what her needs and interests are, and if she checks a box, someone follows up to invite her to a specific event that fills that need. There’s a real sense that people care about her. Not generic teens, but her specifically.

She likes it when our diocese offers praise-and-worship events for youth, because she finds that way of worshipping to be satisfying. She wishes she could have that more often. Now we are veering into matters of taste, so let me back up and turn this into something more universal: People are different from each other. Certain types of sacred music, certain devotions, certain ways of serving in the Church, each touch different hearts in different ways. 

I don’t hear many people tell me that they wish every single Mass all over the world was this style or that style. What I hear more typically is, “I wish there was someplaceI could go for this thing that really touches me.” What they tend to hear in reply from establishment Catholics is, “You’re a bad Catholic for wanting that thing. If you really loved Jesus, you’d be happy with what we’ve chosen for you.”

There’s a sense of hopelessness. You try to explain what you’re spiritually hungry for, or why the stock offering doesn’t meet your needs, and you get shut down. You try over and over again to “be the change” or “make the effort” and it leads nowhere. It’s difficult not to conclude that the Church really just doesn’t have a place for people like you.

 

We aren’t all Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

I am always telling people to read the lives of the saints, but I think some people use the saints as their club to beat down other Catholics. Saint So-and-So put up with isolation and detraction, and so should you. I don’t disagree that we ought to strive for such a passionate love of God that no trial is too great to endure. But the reality is that we in the pews – and those who are leaving the pews – we are human. We want to know and be known, love and be loved. 

Ultimately what we want is for our children to experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that leads to an unshakeable conversion. Getting there, however, is a process. Not everyone has a faith that’s yet been built up to the point that it can withstand desolation. We should not be the least surprised that kids from marginally-Catholic homes check out of the Church. The reality is that kids from good Catholic homes are struggling just to make themselves stay.