Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Catechists need new approaches to reach a 'lost generation,' college chaplain says

First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Father Christopher Vaccaro is not trying to be dramatic when he calls today’s college students a “lost generation” as far as religion goes.

He knows that anyone who follows the news is aware that research over many decades shows a steady decline in church attendance, but Father Vaccaro, chaplain and director of Catholic campus ministry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, has begun using terms such as “grave” and “dire” for the current state of belief.

We have to find the right starting points to reach the young to propose the beauty of the faith.” Fr. Christopher Vaccaro

He notes that members of Gen Z — those under 25, which includes most college students — are the least religious of any generation of Americans, including the Millennials, now roughly ages 25-40.

But unlike previous generations, members of Gen Z “are more likely to identify their unaffiliation as atheist or agnostic (21 percent) and most think church attendance is unimportant,” said Father Vaccaro, one of more than a dozen presenters at the 2021 diocesan Catechetical Conference Nov. 20 in Reston, which drew about 350 catechists from 45 parishes. The theme was “Say the Word and My Soul Shall Be Healed.”

He gave examples of not just skepticism but outright hostility to religion, built on misinformation or ignorance. One Catholic student told him she woke up in the middle of the night with her three roommates standing over her bed reading something. When she asked what was going on, they said they were “performing an exorcism,” so she would leave the church.

Father Vaccaro said it is now common even among those who attend daily Mass to vocally dissent from Catholic teachings. “They don’t have any problem saying, ‘Well, I don’t believe in that.’ This is not an outlier, it’s becoming more and more common,” he said. 

As Catholic catechists, “we are starting from the wrong place,” Father Vaccaro said. “We have to find the right starting points to reach the young to propose the beauty of the faith.” He said religious education teachers often assume young adults have had at least a basic grounding in church teachings, but these days, most have not. He’s discovered many don’t even know the meaning of terms such as the Resurrection, the Incarnation, adoration or morality.

It is not enough to try a new program or create a parish Instagram account to reach young people, he said. “I am not in any way attacking the effort of parishes, volunteers and parents as they attempt to address these issues, but partial remedies only continue to allow the real problems to keep festering — a deeper disaffiliation of the young and a continued, rapid decay of belief in church teachings.”

The answer, he believes, is for catechists and other adults to “engage in true Christian friendship and mentorship” of young people, he said. “The young are waiting for us to reach out to them in a sincere manner. It is from that connection that we can open the door to invite the young to deeper faith, service to the church and to seeing the life of holiness as something they can and should desire.”

At the opening Mass, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge thanked catechists for their dedicated ministry, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, and urged them not just to teach but “to listen to those you serve, especially our young people.” Young people today are struggling to live their faith and share it with others in a culture where they are often “labeled and ridiculed,” he said.

“The Lord has chosen you to be his evangelizers and instruments of healing love to a wounded world,” he added. “We have the remedy — the truth and joy of the Gospel.”

Some catechists at the conference said they agreed that churches need to find new ways to reach out to young people, and many have been trying.

Sherin Murphy, director of religious education at St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, said her RE team shifted to “less classroom lectures and more interaction,” by creating service programs in which kids fan out to volunteer with different ministries to meet people around the parish, “but then COVID happened.” Like most parish staff, DREs are pulled in so many directions, she added, quoting a colleague who said that around parishes, “DRE means ‘Do Religious Everything.’ ” 

Father John J. Riley, who serves at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester and the diocesan San Damiano Retreat Center in White Post, reminded attendees at another session that all of the baptized are part of a “royal priesthood” that is different from the ordained priesthood, but which plays an important role in the Mass and the church.

He said catechists’ job is to “set fires” in people’s hearts, but in order to do this more effectively, they must spend time in quiet, contemplative prayer to ensure they are properly disposed at Mass “to complete the work begun by the priest at the altar in the sanctuary — from the altar of our own hearts.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021