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Catechists have new challenge after pandemic-fueled hiatus: ‘This is a community where I need to belong’

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Catechists from around the Diocese of Wilmington gathered virtually on March 20 for their annual conference, back after a one-year hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They heard from pastoral ministry consultant Dr. Robert McCarty ways to get others to end their hiatus from the Catholic Church.

McCarty, who has been working in youth and pastoral ministry for almost 50 years, started with the proposition that passing on the faith is “more difficult now than it has ever been.” He asked the catechists to listen to his presentation as parents and grandparents and relate how that applied to their own lives.

When trying to figure out why Catholics walk away from the church, McCarty suggested they look at those on the margins. They give catechists “a grace to see what’s going on inside the church.”

One of the things McCarty wanted to emphasize was that it is not only young people who leave the church. While 35 percent of those are 18-25 years old, 37 percent are between 30 and 49, and 19 percent are 50-64.

“What this is telling us is that we don’t have a youth problem,” he said. “We have a faith community problem.”

The number of people leaving the Catholic Church tells us that catechists can no longer rely on the culture of prior years to keep people active. The decline is seen in the participation in the sacramental and community life of the church. Marriages in the church are down significantly, as are baptisms and funerals. Enrollment in Catholic schools and religious education has dropped as well.

“It says that young adults no longer see the church as that place where we celebrate the key moments of our lives,” he said.

Bob McCarty

But studies have shown that while a formal connection to a faith has declined, people still hunger for community and for spirituality. McCarty told the group of a woman named Rachel who described herself as “Catholic-ish.” Rachel said people are craving spirituality in new ways. She talked about the “dinner party,” where women got together to tell their stories. That movement has expanded.

He also talked about how the fitness center is the new church. If you belong to a fitness center and don’t show up for a few weeks, they call you to find out where you’ve been. The leaders help members get set up and reach their goals. And there is only encouragement. Planet Fitness, for example, markets itself based on no commitments necessary, and it’s a judgment-free zone.

“It’s like they read our study,” McCarty joked.

He also mentioned Peloton, where owners of their equipment can take part in virtual classes. The company offers a scripturally based spiritual exercise routine on Sunday mornings that draws thousands of people. Likewise, yoga, spirituality and meditation centers have seen great growth.

To reach those who are leaving the church, McCarty said catechism has to undergo a paradigm shift.

“If we ever hope to educate their heads, we have to engage their hearts. It’s about creating those strong emotional connections to the community. ‘This is a community where I need to belong’” he said.

Baby boomers grew up with the understanding that believing led to belonging. Today, the starting point is belonging. “That hunger to belong is so profound.”

McCarty emphasized that beliefs are still important. People are so hungry for the “experience of the holy that our worship needs to feed that. That’s what people are looking for.”

So, he suggests, engage them in liturgy with special commissionings and blessings. Have young people offer reflections and intercessions at liturgy. Create prayer partners with adults in the parish. Engage their families, he said.

He also suggests that parish leaders and catechists “accompany” them in addition to engage them. One way to do that is to create safe spaces for them to share and ask questions and express their doubts. Those spaces need to be nonjudgmental.

Catechesis, he said, is not only about passing on information. “It’s about walking with our young people.”

He referred to R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on global religion, who maintains that the church has not passed on the best part of being Catholic to our children. McCarty said rediscovering Catholicism brings out that it is a communal religion.

“We are a religion of the head, the heart and the hands,” he said. “To be Catholic is to see the world as shot through with God.”

It is a religion that engages the world and takes care of the hungry and the sick. Catholics, he added, are called to transform the world. Young people, he said, have a craving for service and justice that is part of our faith.