The millennium generation are not lost to us
ROSS AHLFELD believes that ‘if Jesus can call me back, he can call anyone back’
NO matter how we dress it up, we have to admit that not enough young people go to Mass anymore. Personally, I find it hard to be too judgemental towards our young people, since like many slacker, Generation-X Catholics, I’d describe my Faith as nominal and non-committal, if not borderline lapsed from the age of 16 to around 24.
Truthfully, I was too interested in radical politics, BMX, Seattle bands, Bellshill bands, shoegaze bands and Marvel and DC comics.
I still enjoy most of these activities, apart from BMX. There are some hobbies that just aren’t acceptable for a 40-year-old dad of two teenagers.
For my part, a few different things caused me to return to the Faith in a more serious way in later years, not through some great spiritual revelation or theological insight. Rather, it returned through art and music—not grunge, indie or comic books.
One source of inspiration was, and remains, The Port Glasgow Resurrection by Stanley Spencer, which can be seen in the Tate Modern. Mr Spencer lived in Port Glasgow during the Second World War to paint life in the shipyards. While he was here, he painted the Last Judgement and Resurrection taking place in a Port Glasgow cemetery.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in this fine old town for many years and I’ve grown very fond of Port Glasgow and the good folk of ‘The Port’. I often like to wander up to the cemetery when it’s not raining (so hardly ever) and imagine Mr Spencer painting here.
The painting depicts ordinary Portonians climbing out of their graves and greeting one another in ecstatic gratitude. Mr Spencer stated that he wanted ‘to take the inmost of one’s most religious feelings and make it an ordinary fact of the street.’
Seeing ordinary people awakening to a life in a world like, yet unlike, the one they once knew had a profound impact upon me. It brought home the reality of life, death and the resurrection for every single one of us.
Another influence was the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Mr Pärt’s music is simplistically beautiful and draws on his deep Orthodox Christianity. He appropriates the centuries-old sounds of monasteries, chant and church bells. Yet at the same time his work feels strikingly avant-garde, minimalist and modern.
Like the paintings of Stanley Spencer, Arvo Pärt’s style can appear unconventional and eccentric.
Yet his work is also rooted in the ancient traditions of Church music just as we can draw a direct line from the frescos of Giotto to The Port Glasgow Resurrection by Stanley Spencer.
I think this type of art speaks to me because Catholic workers are often known as what some describe as ‘Fools for Christ’ and this is very much art that speaks to all ‘Fools for Christ’—radical, a bit weird, sometimes absurd and on the fringes, yet at its heart sincere and devout.
One of Mr Pärt’s compositions is called Adam’s Lament. Mr Pärt describes the fall of Adam as representing ‘humankind in its entirety and each individual person alike.’
He describes the fall as a cosmic catastrophe, but that there is a way out of everything. For me, this is about losing your Faith and then finding a way back. Most of all, the music of Arvo Pärt is the sound of a return to truth, a return to life, and a return to God. This is because his work comes to us from within the depths of the spirit-crushing, atheistic Communist regime of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War—just as the Sorrowful Songs by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki reflected the deep tragedy, profound suffering and ultimate triumph of hope that endured in Poland under the totalitarianism of both Nazism and Communism.
For me, this is the critical point with regards to why our young people leave the Church. For example, we can all easily grasp and appreciate just how difficult it was for young Christians to maintain the Faith in the face of a godless system which sought to totally eliminate God from society. Yet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said: “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both socialism and capitalism are repulsive.”
Communism was explicitly atheistic in its denial of the existence of God and therefore sought to build a society around this denial. But equally, we can also describe atheism as ‘living our lives as if God does not exist.’
The easiest way to do this is to succumb to the superficial culture of consumerist greed and materialism which quietly rots our spiritual lives far more than any gulag. At its worst extreme capitalism dehumanises and commodifies human life in the exact same way communism does. The only difference is that it’s a more subtle attack and less explicit.
The culture of death we currently see is a result of a liberalism which springs not from communism but from capitalism. It is not the forces of communism which are destroying community and family life in the western world; it’s the forces of capital.
I truly believe that the millennial generation are very much living under a regime of extreme individualism, shopping, technology, food, noise, violence, sex and greed that is even more hostile and damaging to our spiritual lives than communism was.
Therefore, perhaps we should not be so hard on our young people for giving up and maybe we need to be a little easier on ourselves for failing to keep them in the Church.
However, parents, teachers, priests—all of us—must recognise the system for what it is before we can even begin do something about it.
As Dorothy Day says: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
Maybe then we’ll be able to deal with the issue of our young people leaving the Church. Maybe then we’ll stop trying to come up with youth ministries that try to copy the superficial world that millennials inhabit.
Let’s face it, Church will never be cool or hip. It will never be able to compete with Netflix or Xbox, and nor should it try to.
The millennials we are dealing with aren’t daft and perhaps we need to ‘sell’ them an undiluted Faith which is raw, edgier and unflinchingly Catholic.
Most importantly, I feel strongly that all the parents of kids who leave the Church should feel no shame or guilt.
Sure, I came back to the fold but not everyone does. To many devout parents, the pain of a son or daughter losing their Faith is very real, since with that loss comes the very real fear that your child may lose their salvation and not be with you in Heaven.
Yet God’s ways are not our ways—we cannot say for certainty what graces have been obtained for your children through your own prayers and sufferings. You must believe that your pain has meaning, you must believe that God hears your cries and has done something about it, be patient and have Faith.
For our loving God, nothing is impossible. If Jesus can call me back he can call anyone, anywhere at any time back to his love. We just need to create a little more silence in our society and in our hearts for that to be able to happen.