Catholic Church Needs to Hear from Its Young

By Dick Ryan
March 26, 2003

In case you hadn't noticed, it's a pretty loud bunch that's been most outspoken about the sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

The media. Voice of the Faithful. A few attorneys. Voice of the Ordained. And from the very beginning, an army of parents. The only ones who have had little or nothing to say about the scandal are the very ones who should have the greatest affinity with the young victims - all the young people in the church. And that's a shame, almost as big a shame as all the smarmy headlines of the past year.

But perhaps we can't really blame the young if they'd rather hang out and compare belly rings. The events in the church during the past few years haven't exactly been very inspiring for the young or anyone else.

As for the future, the bishops can pray and issue pious statements until the cows come home, and groups such as Voice of the Faithful can demand all kinds of accountability from church leaders. But unless the younger generation in the church becomes personally and viscerally involved soon in what's happening, that future is running on old legs and fading fumes.

But maybe the young simply aren't paying attention to the actions of their contemporaries. Did teenagers, for instance, notice the courage of Toni Smith, the college basketball player who turned aside from the American flag to protest some of the nagging injustices to the poor and marginalized in this country? Or have the young singles and married couples noticed the teeming numbers of young faces that have hit the streets to protest a war in Iraq?

Surely, most young Catholics have some of the same idealism and instincts for challenge. Surely, there are times when they want to act on their own appetites for the ideal, their own impulses to lead, and to take their own prophetic place in a church that has always seemed to be simply the safe haven of their parents and the sole property of their priests.

At the moment, Voice of the Faithful and Voice of the Ordained are voices in the wilderness, starkly alone in their willingness to step forward and demand reform in the church that they have never stopped loving. But the members of both groups are mostly middle-aged and older and, so far, a young face at their meetings is as rare as a senior citizen at an altar boys' convention. So what must the young do to become involved in their church?

They must begin with the gut understanding that all change begins from the inside and not from the fringe, with each of them stepping up as refreshing catalysts for change both in themselves and in the church itself. So they must first be truly Catholic, living and practicing their beliefs with a maturing spirituality that is both courageous and profound. Otherwise, they are only childish whiners looking in from the outside with a flimsy understanding of their faith.

Secondly, they must become active in the life of their parish, sharing a bond with all those who bring flesh and blood to their parish by their interest, their energy and their commitment.

Thirdly, they must become actively involved with prophetic new groups such as Voice of the Faithful, which have been described as the first authentic religious order of the 21st century. And while they're at it, the young must take the reins and begin to organize within their own age group as the Voice of the Future whether it's on a college or high school level or among the single and married young.

But with the ban on Voice of the Faithful in many dioceses and the recent prohibition against priests meeting in Brooklyn, the young must be prepared to be criticized and perhaps even condemned by leaders in a church that has regressed from the Church Paralyzed of 2002 to the Church Paranoid of 2003.

It is imperative also that the young thoroughly acquaint themselves with the issues and the people so that their idealism and vision are fueled by knowledge, balance, depth and truth.

And, finally, they must speak out boldly on the issues, as individuals or groups, and not be bashful or intimidated about addressing leaders of the church with their ideas, their complaints and their uncompromising hopes for the future, even if their message has to rocket all the way to the Vatican.

There is an old myth in the Catholic Church that the best and the brightest enter the seminary and the convent and become priests and nuns. But that's no longer true. With their enthusiasm and energy, the young are needed in the larger community where they are called on to make a difference with a voice that is as constructive and healing as it is stubbornly, sublimely Catholic.

George Bernard Shaw was all wrong when he observed that "youth is wasted on the young." But Pope John Paul II was closer to the heart of the matter when he noted that the lay people in the Catholic Church are "a sleeping giant." When he said that, he probably wasn't even dreaming of how the young, if aroused, could dwarf most of us with their presence, their potential and their passion.

The young have plenty of role models. Toni Smith is one of them. So was the teenage warrior, Joan of Arc, and a young rebel called Francis of Assisi. And there was also the young boy who, at 12, dared to challenge the elders in the temple and later, at the age of 30, began speaking out boldly on issues that would cost him his life three years later.

Somehow, all of us forget that, at the end, Jesus was still so very, very young.

Dick Ryan is a columnist for Salt, a Catholic monthly newspaper.


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