About a month ago I was at my brother’s house for a gathering of friends and relatives. After about 8 p.m., most of the guests were gone, leaving only the two of us, my sister-in-law, and a couple from out of town who are close friends to the three of us and who were spending the night. We began talking about the younger generation’s attitudes towards the Catholic faith. Before we realized it, the clock was showing midnight. Apparently parents as well as priests are very bewildered by what the generation that has grown up in the “information age” chooses to believe or not believe about religion.

I woke up thinking about our conversation, picked up the morning paper, and in the “eatpraylive” section of The Advocate was a long article entitled “Most Americans believe but not always in the God of the Bible.” According to the Pew Research group, about 10 percent of Americans don’t believe in the God of the Bible or any higher power. They are the real atheists. “But among the so-called ‘nones’—a broad category of atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none of the above” on questions about religion fully 72 percent believe in a higher power of some kind.”

There seems to be a lot of confusion about this “God of the Bible.” In the survey report he is described as “the conventional all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God of the Bible.” One could wonder whether the survey-takers have read the New Testament where Jesus says that no one has seen the father except himself who has come down from heaven. Whoever believes in him, Jesus, will have eternal life. He goes on to say, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:46-51).

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Jesus came to show us a different image of God than the Jewish people of his day had, and a different image, I suspect, than the one the younger generation of today is rejecting. Yes, the Bible Old Testament and New Testament pictures a God who is all-loving, but not a Pollyanna kind of God who never lets us suffer. The God of the Bible is all-knowing, but Jesus’ God is not God the scientist, not Einstein’s fine-tuner of the universe, but the God who knows the hearts of everyone and can be our consolation in a confusing, and often very cruel, world. Nor is Jesus’ God all-powerful in the sense of controlling our every action. Jesus invited from everyone he met a response of love, a conversion of heart, a gift of service to others. He never forced anyone, but asked us to choose. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we freely follow his way of love, we will find the truth of goodness, of God’s Spirit, and live through that Spirit with Jesus and the father forever.

God is not Pollyanna, nor, however is he a vague higher power. God is our father who is imaged for us in his son, Jesus, who told us, “If you know me, then you will also know my father … Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:7-9). The Jesus that we know as the embodiment of self-sacrificing love is the image of God. It is not, I think, this God nor his image in human flesh, Jesus, who is being rejected by the young people of today. This God is a personal God who speaks through Jesus to our hearts more than to our minds. Could it be an impersonal church that they are leaving, a church that appears more like an institution than like the “people of God” described in Vatican II’s document on the church?

Pope Francis has convoked another Synod of Bishops to meet this coming October to address the question of how do we keep and/or call back to the church our younger generation. Many of them have become “nones.” In preparation for the synod, he has sent questionnaires to all of the world’s Catholic dioceses to canvass ground level opinions on the problem and solutions to it. How do we evangelize the millennials? So far, participation in the survey has not been strong, according to the National Catholic Reporter Newspaper (March 23 – April 5).

A conference was held recently, March 5-7, at Notre Dame University in South Bend, to address cultural issues that may be a cause of the exodus of so many young people from our Catholic Church and many Protestant churches as well. Speakers blamed the culture so influenced by excessive use of smartphones and media technology encouraging users “to focus on what is new, not what is important, creating ‘suckers for irrelevancy.’ ” They also spoke of reduction of all knowledge to the scientific method, excessive individualism and pornography. Suggestions to address these negative influences from breakout sessions included involving young people in pilgrimages and service projects.

An editorial in the same issue of NCR criticized blaming younger people for the culture in which they are growing up. While it might be true that young people seem turned off by institutions, it is up to us to put a more Christ-like face on our church. We have to be more inviting, less exclusive, more focused on charitable works and less on imposing rules. The people of God, especially those 34 and under, are looking for inspiration and authenticity. “Examples of people who walk the faith and live the heart of the Gospel are more convincing than hours of apologetics and glitzy presentations on up-to-date delivery platforms.”

Pray for the synod, for the pope, the bishops and our young people.

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic
Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.