“The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners!” I have pondered this statement many times. I have considered it as I think about what the Church is and is not. The Church is neither a club or a hospital. It is not a sacrament dispenser, a spiritual service provider or a Sunday show. The Church is the Body of Christ, “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:4-5). As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (LG) of the Second Vatican Council stated, the mystery of the Church is manifested in its own foundation. The Lord Jesus set the Church to build the kingdom of God, which began with him, and continues to germinate and grow in all nations. The Church is not an end in itself. As our Pope Emeritus has often said, the mission of the Church is to carry on what Jesus started, to act as Jesus would act. As Lumen Gentium expresses, the Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ (LG 26).
I recently began to ask young adults about how well the Church is living out such a mission: what they perceive as the Church's strengths and limits; the ways they have experienced consolation and desolation through the Church, that is, an increase or decreased in faith, hope and love. This question came as a I prayed with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In the First Exercise of the First Week, or the first phase of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to contemplate: “What I have done for Christ, what I am doing for Christ, and what I ought to do for Christ?” This contemplation led me to ask the same of the Church.
I directed this question at young adults as I mostly work with this demographic. I personally called some; I talked to many after mass, Eucharistic adoration and other church happenings; I posted the questions on Twitter and Facebook. In total, I got answers from thirty-nine people. Some were very brief, while some others wrote almost 2,000 words. I got replies in Spanish, French and English. About 90% of the people who responded live in North America, and the others wrote from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. In short, I am impressed by the depth and thoughtfulness of some of the reflections that I received from the young people. I am grateful for the way that we as the Church are carrying on the mission of helping build God's kingdom. Lastly, I am somewhat bewildered by the amount of work that we still need to do.
In terms of data collection, I used no specific method to record or evaluate the answers. I am simply going to name and comment on a some of the things people told me in our “conversations”.
What the Church is doing well:
- The Church continues to preach our Crucified and Risen Lord. Almost everyone stated in some way how grateful they are for the Church. She continues to proclaim the Good News amidst tempests: the tempests people experience in their lives and also the Church's own tempests. Her proclamation of Jesus Christ allows us to weather the storms.
- Faith and reason. A large number of my respondents said they valued how the Church defends and expresses the capacity of human reason to comprehend Truth. As one of them commented: “Jesus came to take away our sins, not our brains.”
- Beauty. There were a variety of answers related to this subject. Young adults appreciate how the Church is a patron of the arts, for they have something to tell us about God. We long to ponder what is beautiful. As the Jesuit Father James Martin once wrote: “Beauty calls to us … Beauty is one way God calls us to see what God is doing in our midst.”
- Justice. We also pine for justice. The Church continues to call us to promote justice and to work for equality, peace and the dignity of the human person. We are called to build and proclaim a culture of life, compassion and hospitality. This invitation is very appealing to many of the young adults with whom I spoke. The call to love and serve another, whether through charity or justice, is very life-giving to them.
- The Body. Yes, try to say it out loud, as Christopher West would say it. Young people are very thankful for and treasure the gift that is the Theology of the Body (ToB). Blessed John Paul II's beautiful vision of sexuality helps us to integrate the understanding of our meaning and purpose in life, with our longing for bonding and intimacy. Some of them told me how grateful they are for ToB because it helped them discern the best way to love.
- Young Adult Ministry. There are many groups out there that continue to do an amazing job at bringing Christ to young adults and young adults to Christ. Groups like Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), different young adult ministries, chaplaincy offices at colleges and universities, and Crusades for Christ, consistently put forth the gospel in a clear and relevant way.
- The Sacraments. They help us to acquire life in abundance. They help us to become like Jesus through Jesus. Many named this as the main source of grace in their lives.
- The Church is boring. Almost half of the group said that at some point they have found going to Church quite boring. Many now realize that they were seeking entertainment in the wrong place, but nevertheless they hope mass and other church events were more vibrant. After speaking to all of them, I got a sense they were not really longing for entertainment; they simply wanted to be more engaged with the great miracle of the Eucharist. They want homilies that are not only well crafted and theologically sound, but also move their hearts and inspire them to follow Jesus. They want to feel at home in the Church and to be challenged in their faith. As one of them told me, quoting G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”. Then, she continued, “We need to be challenged and inspired to fall more deeply in love with Christ.”
- Not just rules, but education. A little less than half of my respondents said that the Church needs to teach more. The more refers to quality and not quantity. The Church needs to teach better. One of them said that this is not accomplished by “… shoving rules and edicts down disillusioned Catholics' throats, but by education.” The Church has an ample and impressive body of teachings; they are well articulated and very powerful. They need to be taught. This calls for finding new ways to help people to further enter into the great mysteries of these riches.
- More trust. A great number said that bishops, priests and religious need to trust young people. Young people want to be part of the mission of the Church, and many already are. Yet others still feel their parish priests, or even sometimes older lay people discourage them from greater participation because “It is hard to trust young people.”
- “Help me pray”. Young people want to learn how to pray. The Church has begun to find new ways to do so, and it has continued its rich tradition of helping people pray. Still, many young people are not being reached. They want more. They want to learn contemplation, Lectio Divina and other methods of prayer. Furthermore, a great number of them said that it was very difficult to find good spiritual directors.
- Others. Some young adults find it very hard to articulate life-giving ways of living their friendships with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) sisters and brothers. While they understand the Church's teachings, they nevertheless struggle to find compassionate and welcoming ways to be present to those who are LGBTI. Some spoke of similar concerns towards divorced and remarried couples. A large number of them also said that the Church needs to do a better job in forming her priests. As someone stated: “They are knowledgeable, good liturgists and zealous. Yet, a great number are also arrogant, aloof and unsympathetic.”