Upon his return from Asian Youth Day, Pope Francis explained, “The meaning of this apostolic visit can be summarized in three words: memory, hope and witness. The church is the custodian of memory and hope. It is a spiritual family in which the adults transmit to the young the flame of faith received from their ancestors; the memory of the witnesses of the past become a new witness in the present and hope for the future.”
I experienced what Pope Francis was talking about in my students at one of the courses I co-taught at the University of Notre Dame. “The Character Project” invited students to look at decisions, behavior, motivations, values and habits, and how these solidify into vices or virtues that eventually determine one’s character.
To grow in character, one must have a vision of what she or he wants to become. This vision, as articulated by about 150 students over six years, almost unanimously emanates from two sources: their faith and specific adult role models who love and believe in them.
At one point, we asked the students whether having a spouse with the same faith or even one who belongs to no faith is negotiable. About a third answered affirmatively. To the question of whether they would bring up their children without any faith tradition, all responded with a look of horror and a definitive “no.” Their upbringing in the faith was their foundation and anchor.
Unfortunately, my Notre Dame students are not the norm. Data indicate that 40 to 50 percent of young adults do not practice the faith in which they were brought up.
Research based on a survey of 3,000 young people by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton shows that most youth believe in a moral and benevolent God who wants us to be good, watches over us and solves our problems in our quest for personal happiness.
God is not a part of their daily lives until needed. They profess to have no particular relationship with this diety. He is analogous to a kind uncle or, better still, as the authors termed, a “Divine Butler.”
There is no sense of sin and grace, suffering and sacrifice, mercy and redemption. Understanding of the Christian tradition and the fundamentals of our faith is spotty: For example, many Catholic students on Catholic campuses cannot name all seven sacraments.
Pope Francis’ message is urgent given the pervasive influences of a materialistic, individualistic and relativistic secular culture; it is profound because we help instill the desire for God in our young. His statement is a call to action to all of us as parents, families and communities. We are the most important transmitters of an active, genuine and integrated faith.
If we smart at youth’s sense of God as “Divine Butler,” note that this outcome telegraphs the deficiency of our collective work in faith formation.
Adults, through our parishes and in the home, must engage to ensure that our children are taught properly the tenets of our faith. After all, how can they cherish what they do not know?
But knowing intellectually is not enough. Knowing comes from doing. The commitment of the family to cultivate a joyful tone for and habits of worship through prayer, devotion, Mass and sacraments constitute the practices leading young people to internalize the ways by which they place God in the center of their lives, engage him, and trust in his love and mercy.
Involving youth in works of charity helps them develop compassion and a sense of what they can do and eventually, what they must do to live their faith.
“Memory, hope and witness.” Let us heed Pope Francis’ call.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.