October 27, 2015
Last September I found myself, a 28 year-old, married, agnostic former Catholic, in a room brimming with enthusiastic religious leaders. I was preparing to speak about something deeply personal that I struggle to talk or even think about. I had spent the previous few days reflecting on my faith history, attempting to come to terms with my spiritual orientation so that I could participate fully. I was nervous.
But then I began to see who was there. I recognized a familiar, positive energy that reminded me of the clergy and lay leadership I grew up with. This was an environment I knew well that made me feel comfortable. I felt more like the Prodigal Son than a shunned apostate. I hoped this warmth would last after they understood more about my faith.
Our panel, four millennials and one priest, began our discussion by addressing the question, “If you had five minutes with Pope Francis, what questions would you ask?” There are a plethora of problems I have with the ‘religious establishment’ that I would put to the pope—contraception, marriage equality, gender equality to name a few. I thought I would try “Why can’t women become priests?”
To my surprise, no one flinched. Smiling, the priest walked me through Pope Francis and the Catholic Church’s progression towards equality, but also provided context to how that issue falls into a pool of important problems facing the greater global community of Catholics that includes some of the poorest nations in the world. The priest cracked my shell of suspicion on how this discussion would progress, and I felt safe to dive into what I felt were the barriers between millennials and the Church.
This priest broke through what I consider to be the first hurdle for millennials—lowering their guard. Religion for many of us is associated with politics, social conservatism, and unapproachable ‘moral’ regulation. This small conference community showed that the real Church is a place of acceptance regardless of differences. The warmth from that is contagious because of its unassuming honesty, welcoming without judgment. The merits of joining this community show themselves through their example and not through proselytizing at the pulpit. Mass is a master’s class for the newly faithful. Experiencing service and community should be Faith 101.
I feel that my generation cannot be compelled to believe, so there needs to be clear benefits that extend past fire and brimstone. How can this community serve a new member? This question may seem selfish, but it can be a door that eventually leads to deeper spiritual development. Can I make friends, meet my soul mate, network into a dream job, or find a unique community service opportunity? These tangibles set a foundation for the bigger personal benefits of living a spiritual life—simply being a good person by being Christ-like.
Despite not believing in Christ as the Son of God, He is still my most influential philosopher. My 12 years of Catholic education and volunteer work through the Church gave me an incredible community that I sorely miss and a moral foundation I cherish. Though I doubt my own faith rekindling, I can see how reconnection to this community, especially if encouraged by peers, could be a real possibility for many estranged Catholics if action precedes the pulpit.
By: Patrick Henning