Helping Young Adults Keep the Faith

“Ann” shared with me a concern regarding her young adult children. Although raised in a committed Catholic home, they have recently been left feeling “cold” with the hypocrisy they see in the parish they attend. The son works in a club and regularly observes a lay church leader acting un-Christian-like in the bar — hitting on women, using profanity, and then sitting in the front pew at Church on Sunday and lecturing him on why he didn’t see him at Mass more often.  The daughter also mentioned feeling painfully scrutinized at every move.  She told her mother that “religious people are the most judgmental people I’ve ever encountered.”  A peer, a college student, felt frustrated at being preached at and condemned for some minor offense, by a person who didn’t know all the (justifying) circumstances surrounding it. This was done all in the name of “the faith” of course.  And it really turned the young adults off, as one could understand.

The dilemma and frustration of  Ann’s children is a common one, and it is not new. The truth is, ever since the Pharisees in Jesus’ time there have been hypocritical religious people. This is not a “faith-problem.” It’s a “people-problem”: an issue with how some people are or are not applying their faith. We all struggle with it to some extent because we are all sinners.

A judgmental attitude, even among those who are not hypocrites, is still also prevalent today, as it has existed for centuries. Those who have found great solace and strength in their religious faith can still be tempted to intolerance of others. It’s difficult for all people when they feel unfairly judged.   However, the late teens and early twenties crowd seem particularly adept at recognizing hypocrisy and are especially sensitive to harsh judgment. This can easily turn them away from those they perceive as judgmental, and sadly sometimes, even turn them from the Faith.

What is the remedy?

First, we must recognize the importance of being specifically encouraging and interested in this group of people. The age from 18 to 24 is when young people are evaluating their early family experiences, primarily defining who they are going to be as adults, and choosing to embrace or reject the values with which they were raised. It’s a critical time for encouragement in the Faith.

Second, we can take positive steps that will help ease the frustration and aid in faith-life growth. Simply talking to our young adult children is a good start. When they point out hypocrisy, recognize their astute perception. Jesus Himself admonished the action of hypocrites. (See Matthew 23). Then discuss how we all fall short of an ideal at some time, but that we are to stay in the race, which is a marathon, after all, and not a sprint.

Forgiveness is a key concept here, but only after a validation of the feelings of justified frustration. (Jesus Himself experienced justified anger. See John 2: 12-13.) We can remind them that our purpose of worshipping God each Sunday is not to impress or please others, but to be God-oriented. The sacraments provide all we need. We focus on our own path to holiness and must not be concerned with what others think of us or how they are living or not living up to virtue themselves. Like an athlete with his eye on the goal line, we need to “just keep going” despite annoyances and distractions, and problems with others struggling, like us, in their faith.

An article entitled “The Young Catholic Church: Roots and Wings” by Robert McCarthy in Church Magazine indicates that the number one influence on the faith of young people is the faith life of their parents. That’s good and bad news. The good part is that if we “just” live our faith well ourselves, our children have an excellent chance of retaining it despite any “people problems” they encounter later on.  The bad part of this piece of news is that living our faith well is easier said than done.  It takes daily effort and constant vigilance to make sure our youngsters learn the creeds and tenets of our Faith, are exposed to the traditions and sacraments regularly, and live in a home where a faith-life is vibrant, joyful and ever-present. Many families around us, luckily, demonstrate that it is very possible!

An English writing professor once told our class, “When you write, SHOW, don’t TELL.” He meant this in the context of story-telling. We were not to write “The girl was happy”. We were to show her happiness by writing something like, “The girl smiled to herself and hummed as she retrieved the mail”, thus indicating her happiness through her actions.

Likewise, in our faith, it is important to show it not just talk about it. Certainly, we need teachers (particularly parents and grandparents) to instruct the faith to their progeny. However, especially in dealing with other people’s children, and sometimes in dealing even with our own, the best “sermon” is a good example.

Even so, “calling people out” is sometimes necessary.  Then what?  We Catholics must remember first Matthew 7:1-3: Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.

But when correction must be done, Jesus instructs us how we are to do it (Matt.18:11-14) : “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Respectfulness is a key, and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to humiliate someone in a public setting. It’s humbling to remember that God is the only truly qualified Judge.

Consider these wise sayings of Mother Teresa:

If you judge people you have no time to love them.

Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.

Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.

This is all good food for thought… and application.

We can’t prevent our young adult children from seeing hypocrisy in life. We can’t shield them from harsh judgment. And ultimately, they have to digest everything they have been given in youth and make their Catholic faith their own. As they are doing this, however, we can certainly aid them by offering love, encouragement and by living a good example. And we are doing a special kindness when we offer other people’s children these things as well. A smile in church, an encouraging word, demonstrating interest in their lives and pursuits — all go a long way in helping young adults become mature Catholics and a make it easier for them to make the choice to stay faithful.

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  • Thank you, Theresa

  • bambushka

    “we can certainly aid them by offering love, encouragement and by living a good example”

    And a copy of the Catechism for their own home.

    This subject is my biggest angst. I pray daily that the Lord will place good solid Catholics in my children’s paths. Even though I do still get the phone calls asking questions about their faith, nothing can add more to their walk than a friend who shares their Faith.

    So far, with children in 30’s and 40’s, four out of six are walking the walk. Please pray for the youth of our Faith. It is a tough road to stay on without someone walking beside them. It seems with my bunch, the babies they had are what made them more faithful; and now the education of those children is definitely drawing them to His Church.

    There is always hope.

  • Catholic Mom of 9

    “And a copy of the Catechism for their own home.”

    Yes, indeed, bambushka! :)Thank you for adding that!

  • hildethedog

    “teach your children in the path that they should go and when they grow old they will depart from it” the motto of my Christian school in Zeeland MI. Note: it does not mention the middle years. St Monica had the same struggles with her son – St Augustine.

  • Catholic Mom of 9

    Excellent point, hildethedog. We all have to digest that which we’ve been taught, and make it our own. For parents, “pray without ceasing” is a pretty good idea too 🙂

  • momof8

    My 18 year old son who is at an orthodox Catholic college, doesn’t believe our faith anymore. He knows the Catholic faith and history better than I ever did. He homeschooled for eight years. We pray daily as a family, try very hard to incorporate our faith in our daily living.

    Yes, I could have been more joyful. Yes, I could have gotten less angry and frustrated. I did my imperfect best, though given our family circumstances. Ultimately, I can’t make him believe in Christ and the Church. He needs to come that belief by grace. My husband and I have said it all, and our son is not open to hearing anymore. We will answer his questions if they come. Mostly though, all we can do is pray and love him as he is. Hopefully, some day he will be back. Yes, St. Monica and I are becoming very good friends. And his Confirmation Saint is Augustine.

  • Catholic Mom of 9

    Mom of 8:

    {{hugs}} Yes, you did it to the best of your ability. Now it is his choice and God’s turn. No doubt through your vast experience teaching and schooling this child you came upon the quote said by a holy priest to St. Monica: ” It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost.” This quote is such a comfort to mothers concerned about their young adult children making the right choices!

    You already know that the quiet example you continue to set and the love you continue to offer presents fertile ground for the seed of your son’s faith to burst forth and blossom. God knew your desire from the beginning, to raise this child to know, love and serve Him. And certainly your son knows too, deep in his heart, your holy desire and sacrifices for his benefit.

    Let’s exchange prayers for our children. At Baptism they were marked eternally for God; at Confirmation they further received the necessary graces to live holy lives and to navigate the moral dangers in modern society. They are His, and even the suffering they cause parents because of their tepidity can be offered back for their benefit.

    You already know that God cannot be outdone in love and mercy. I pray you feel His peace. It is quite possible that your son will eventually surprise you with the depth of his own faith and in his vocation as it is revealed. Sometimes those who begin their young adult life the most questioning and challenging wrestle with the greatest questions in life and become God’s best warriors. I have seen this first-hand.

    Prayers for your family and son–(and please pray for me and my family as well! 🙂 We all have to stick together)

  • momofsix

    Catholic Mom of 9,

    What beautiful encouragement you offer! Thank you for your kind words. I have taken them to heart and am encouraged to pray for you and all other Catholic families striving to pass on the faith to the next generation.

    Thank you to the author as well for some great insights and encouragement. In reading her article I have become aware of the needs that this group of young Catholics in our church today and will pray for all of them more often.

    My daughter recently married an excellent, faithful, Catholic 25 year old man. I would not find this exceptional other than for the fact that they actually met at church and because it occurs to me that very few of them are seen in church on Sundays. It is rather sad but I will try not to be overcome by the sadness rather remember this article and pray!

  • momof8

    Thank you Catholic Mom of 9 soooo much. I just searched the article on CE to see if there were any more comments. Wow.

    Your hugs and prayers and kind words are so comforting. I was going to write the quote about the tears when I posted my comment, but couldn’t remember it well enough. Thank you for writing it. Last night was one of those nights when the tears flowed. I know God has a plan, though and everything you wrote to me is a confirmation of what my husband told me last night and of what I have been trying to do. God is good. I will pray for you and your family. Yes, we need to stick together.