Divine Butler, Cosmic Therapist, Distant Uncle

I’m in Clearwater Beach attending the Catholic Campus Ministry Association National Convention, where I will give a workshop tomorrow on Ministering to the Graduate Professional Student. Last night was the opening keynote speech and it was given by Carolyn Woo, CEO and President of Catholic Relief Services.

She began her talk by talking about her own story: her immigration to the US from Hong Kong in order to attend college at Purdue. What she found at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center at Purdue was hospitality, grace, and welcome. A community of people who cared for and supported her. She observed that because she was so well cared for, it was natural for her to want to give back, to step up and work on behalf of others.

With respect to ministering to young people, she noted that before we can encourage young people to live their lives for God, we need to understand who is the God they understand. She discussed some statistics from studies of teenagers today. From them, she concluded that many young people see God as something akin to a combination of a divine butler, a cosmic therapist, and a good distant uncle. God is there for them but doesn’t really demand anything from them. God is not particularly involved in their lives unless they have a problem. God wants them to be happy and the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about themselves. She also talked about how many college students today lack basic catechesis.

I don’t know enough about the underlying statistics to know if Woo’s description is an accurate one. But one cannot give one’s life to God without having a meaningful sense of who God is.

Woo’s comments have implications for those involved in faith formation of college studnets (and the young adults they grow into). We need to understand where they are in order to help them grow.

Faith Formation

Earlier this week, I gave a talk at a parish in St. Paul on the importance of formation in the life of a parish. Among the topics I addressed in my talk were the goals of adult faith formation. As I see it, there are at least five related pieces to formation: prayer, knowledge of the faith, moral formation, social justice/missionary spirit and liturgical life/communal life.

Prayer is obviously the fundamental starting point because without prayer, everything just becomes “head” stuff and there is a real risk of not being guided by spirit. Therefore adult faith formation has to include some emphasis on things that will encourage and deepen the prayer life of parishioners, the teach people new ways to pray, and to give them places to share fruits of prayer.

I include knowledge of the faith because lamentably, many people lack a basic understanding of many of the fundamentals of the faith. At the most basic level, we want to encourage people to focus on what it is that we recite every week at Mass in the Creed. The Creed contains the basic irreducible elements of our faith that every Catholic should understand. Yet, many people recite it by rote, giving little or no thought to what they are affirming.

When I speak of moral formation, I mean to include not just the dos and don’ts, but also the bases for the moral choices we are asking people to make. In many ways Catholicism is counter-cultural. Both for parishioner’s own understand and to contribute to their ability to evangelize others, it is incumbent on us to find ways to help people understand the bases for the moral judgments the Church has made.

Social justice…sigh. What I often hear from people in parishes is “you know, people are not all that interested in social justice. My response is always, “tell them to read Matthew 25.” I don’t think one can call oneself Catholic and not care about social justice.” As Catholics, our faith is about who we are in the world. That means that an adult faith formation has to include helping people understand principles of Catholic social thought and how they apply in their lives.

The final goal of adult faith formation is conveying something of the importance of our communal liturgical and other celebrations. As Catholics, our faith is not an individual faith but a communal one. It is important, therefore, to foster an understanding of the communal and liturgical aspects of our faith.

My talk also covered issues having to do with the challenges we face in designing successful adult formation program and the preliminary question of why we should care about formation. But I’d be interested in knowing if others perceive there to be other goals or areas important for adult faith formation to address other than those I have identified.