The Church often asks, “Why are young people leaving?” But it usually comes up with the wrong answers. “They left because they did not take the trouble to learn about their faith,” or, “secular society drew them away.” However, one of the main reasons given by young people themselves for leaving is that the Church is not meeting their spiritual needs.
If parishes are not meeting the needs of all the faithful, we must examine the state of catechesis in the Catholic Church. In the United States, for example, we see that adults who have attended worship and religious education regularly—including those who were also educated in Catholic schools—often only have a third grader’s understanding of the faith. This points to a problem with how the Church hands on the faith to young people. Furthermore, if we only invest time and energy bringing back those who have wandered away from the faith, they will simply send their children into the same broken catechetical system. This becomes a revolving door unless we fix it.
We need to ask new questions. Maybe we should be asking, “What can we do to keep young people from leaving in the first place? How can parishes and Catholic apostolates meet young people’s spiritual needs?”
Sociologist Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame has been researching the phenomenon of young people leaving the Church over much of the past twenty years. He has also examined why young people stay. The factors that Smith has identified that consistently lead to young people remaining in—or spending less time away from—the Church are: having highly religious parents, praying frequently, having personal religious experiences, spending personal time reading Scripture, attending Mass frequently, and being satisfied with their parish. When these factors occur during childhood or adolescence, it leads to young people consciously integrating their faith into their identity, instead of only receiving it as something handed to them by their parents. Important here is the role of the family. If the faith is lived out in the home, the smallest and most formative community, young people are less likely to leave the Church or—if they do—spend less time away from it. It is not enough to drop off the kids at faith formation class or Catholic school and expect their religious and spiritual lives to be nourished. Catechetical programs must be accompanied by a visible commitment to living out the faith in the home. Children must experience it in their everyday lives.
If we are looking for a roadmap on how to nourish the faith of young people, we can also usefully examine what the Church teaches about catechesis. Saint John Paul II gave the Church a wonderful path to follow in his 1979 apostolic exhortation on catechesis, Catechesi Tradendae. In this document, he states, “There is no separation or opposition between catechesis and evangelization. Nor can the two be simply identified with each other. Instead, they have close links whereby they integrate and complement each other.” (CT 18). He elaborates that Christocentricity is the essential object of catechesis and evangelization: “It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by Him” (CT 5-6).
This then begs the question, how does one accomplish a Christ-centered catechesis? The importance of evangelization in formation is essential. Ultimately, it is Christ who is communicated through the power of evangelization, who nourishes the faithful, and who deepens their understanding of the Gospel. This emphasis on evangelization is central to the teaching of both John Paul II and Pope Francis. In Catechesi Tradendae, John Paul II reveals that evangelization is the first step in anyone’s introduction to the faith,
“Within the whole process of evangelization, the aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturation stage, that is to say, the period in which the Christian, having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus.” (CT 20)
This is to say that the learning of doctrine is not the first movement within the catechetical process. First, the faithful must encounter and entrust themselves to Christ, then deepen their understanding of Christ and his Church.
Likewise, Pope Francis has made evangelization central to his pontificate, and he points out its importance in the education of young Catholics in his 2019 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on young people Christus Vivit. Francis states, “Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life.” (CV 212).
The continuity of thought between John Paul II and Francis concerning evangelization as part of formation is also exhibited in their emphasis on the kerygma. John Paul II asserts in Catechesi Tradendae that catechesis is built on certain elements which include, “the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching through the kerygma to arouse faith” (CT 18). And when speaking of children and adolescents he communicates that the initial catechesis for these age groups should be one that “is directed towards the giving of witness in the faith,” and, “the revelation of Jesus Christ as a Friend, Guide and Model, capable of being admired but also imitated” (CT 37, 38).
Francis echoes his predecessor in Christus Vivit when he states that an important goal is the “development of the kerygma, the foundational experience of encounter with God through Christ’s death and resurrection… Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma.” (CV 213, 214). This emphasis on the kerygma and evangelization from these two pontiffs points us toward the notion of formation rather than education in the faith. Evangelization ultimately should stimulate our desire to grow closer to Christ, and education and catechesis are in service to this growth. Catechesis is also at service to the proclamation of the kerygma, the proclamation that Jesus Christ is God, that he has saved us, and walks with us day by day giving us strength and enlightening our hearts.
Being Catholic is not confined simply to knowing and following the teachings of the Church. It should be centered around one’s formation as a disciple of Christ. Our mission as Christ-followers is not to scrupulously order our lives to a series of doctrines, it is to conform our lives to a person, to Jesus, and to carry on his work of bringing about the kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.
Let us ask ourselves, are we evangelizing and proclaiming the kerygma to young people in the Church? Are we introducing them to Jesus in ways that they can relate to and understand? Because if we are not making the person of Jesus and his teachings in the gospels central to our catechetical systems, and only communicating doctrines in a way that is divorced from Christ, then we are not being faithful to the Church’s best insights on how to raise young people in the faith.
It is my experience as a parish director of catechesis that many individuals within the Church, and catechetical curriculums, focus on the black and white communication of the Church’s doctrine. It needs to be made clear that learning doctrine is no substitute for encountering and falling in love with God. If many of our parish catechetical systems lack an emphasis on encounter, on the kerygma, then it is no wonder that we hear from those who no longer claim to be Catholic that they were not being spiritually fed. Many say that they have instead been fed spiritually in evangelical churches or other denominations where the focus is more fully on an encounter with God. John Paul II points out that we need both encounter and education: they are interrelated.
It is the Church’s job to equip and teach young people and their parents. When we ask why young people are leaving the church, the answer is not to be found outside of it: instead, the answer is in front of us. It is our failure to effectively hand on the faith. The catechetical system is broken and if we do not make efforts to fix it then we can reasonably expect young Catholics to continue wandering away from the Church.
Christian Smith et al., Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1979).
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).
Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019).
McNeil, Louis, “Evangelization,” The New Dictionary of Theology, (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987).
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J.D. Combs has a Master's Degree in Theological Studies from the Franciscan School of Theology where he wrote his thesis on the evangelization of young people. He is currently a parish director of catechetical ministries, and is beginning his Ph.D. in Spirituality at Oblate School of Theology in the Fall of 2021.