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Spirituality Day: Youth minister believes God is more present in chaos than in structure

Bob McCarty

MILLTOWN — It’s a great time to be a Catholic school teacher — if you like chaos, a prominent youth minister told diocesan educators at the annual Spirituality Day at Saint Mark’s High School on Aug. 26.
“I don’t think there’s been a more challenging time to do what you’re doing, or a more important time to do what you’re doing,” Bob McCarty told hundreds of teachers and administrators.
McCarty is a pastoral ministry consultant and trainer who lives in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He has been involved in professional ministry since 1973 and served as the executive director for the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry for 19 years. His talk, “Passing on the Faith: The Pain and the Promise,” touched on the issue of young people leaving the institutional church and what those in Catholic schools can do to better serve them.
He has been part of a national study called “Going, Going, Gone” about the disaffiliation of young people from the Catholic Church. He said God creates out of chaos, and he believes God is more present in chaos than in structure.
“The chaos isn’t the absence of the spirit. I believe it is the home of the spirit,” he said.
The territory of the church is changing, and Catholic school teachers must recognize that change in order to keep young people in the church or bring them back. First, he asked the audience to think of a person they know who has walked away from the church.
“My guess is that the person you called to mind, I’ll bet that person is a good person,” he said. “Isn’t it fascinating. There’s something going on here. We are somehow in our ministerial approaches here, we are forming really good youth and young adults who have chosen not be to connected to a church.”
McCarty encouraged the teachers to stay in a relationship with those people. That helps them stay connected to the Catholic Church. It’s not just young people who are walking away, he continued.
“What this says is that we don’t have a youth problem. We have a faith community problem. We have a challenge as people of faith about how we pass on faith to the next generation,” he said.
There are several reasons for this, many of which are well-known. The clergy sexual abuse scandal is one. In addition, the Catholic culture that many adults grew up with no longer exists. McCarty listed several more specific reasons young people cite for drifting away.
“Because there’s no single reason, there’s no single solution,” he said.
McCarty said his research shows that most young people say there’s no way to bring them back to the church, but he is skeptical of that. “I think grace wins,” he said.
He said there are five “hungers” that shape our youth and young adults today. The first is meaning and purpose. They want to know that things make sense because chaos scares them. The second is a hunger for connection. They want to belong to a community. Teachers see that, he explained, in their classrooms and in school clubs.
Third, they want to be recognized “as bringing something to the table.” Knowing their names is part of that, he said. It creates a connection among people. Fourth, he believes there is still a hunger for the holy. Lastly, there is a hunger for justice. Children know when things aren’t ethical.
“If these are fundamental hungers in our children youth today, where are those hungers being fed? People go where their hungers are fed,” he said.
When the leave the Catholic Church, many avoid organized religion and others are searching. It mirrors a loss of trust in social institutions, such as the government, banking, hospitals, the media and even the Supreme Court.
When attracting those folks, “trust is the primary currency.” In the past, faith identity was passed down, but McCarty believes today is being personally constructed in a piecemeal process. A recent study shows that young adults are gathering in quasi-spiritual communities and creating their own rituals. Fitness centers, he noted, are the new church. One prominent fitness chain advertises as a “judgment-free zone,” and that is appealing.
“The hunger is the same hunger. The way people are addressing that hunger is changing,” he said.
The starting point for making people feel welcome is creating a sense of belonging, he said.
“The starting point is, ‘Am I welcome here?’ And if the answer is no, they’re not coming back,” he said.
Another fitness company calls its members when they haven’t seen them for a while just to make sure they’re OK, McCarty said. The same company’s chief executive officer reminds employees that they are creating relationships.
Teachers can do that with students. They walk with them along their faith journey, and the students need “safe spaces for deep conversations.” They don’t want to be judged, but they need to feel respected. He advised the educators to listen to their students before they respond.
“We know that if we ever want to educate their heads, it’s going to start by engaging their hearts,” he said.
Engagement is about a connection. Previously, believing led to belonging. Today, the reverse is true. They are looking to be welcomed. Educational theorists say that belonging leads to behavior, McCarty said. That doesn’t mean that beliefs are not important; they are just no longer the starting point. Experience is the criterion for truth.
“We can talk all we want about encountering Jesus, but if they don’t have an encounter with Jesus, Jesus isn’t real. If they don’t experience the transcendent, it’s not real,” he said.
The Spirituality Day program began with Mass with Bishop Malooly. It also included the recognition of nearly 100 educators celebrating significant service anniversaries.
Among the honorees was Louis De Angelo, the superintendent of schools, who is marking 40 years in Catholic education. The longest-tenured teachers honored were Martha Holloday of Padua Academy and Mary Jean Quill of St. Elizabeth. Both are celebrating 45 years.