April 5 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Faith in home, school and parish: how can we best form young people as 21st-century disciples?

Fr Stephen Reilly explores the best ways to form young Catholics as 21st century disciples

The SCO’s recent report on the World Youth Day in Panama (February 8) once again raised the question of how young people’s Faith can be nourished in a secular environment like Scotland.

What is the most effective way to encourage discipleship among young parishioners, and where should our energies be focussed: on creating and supporting powerful spiritual experiences such World Youth Day? Our Catholic schools? Catechesis? Parish life and Sunday worship? Families?

Recent studies of young Catholics in both the US and the UK have shed some light on this issue.



In February, Leslie Francis and Anne Casson surveyed 2,146 young people aged 13-15 in the UK who self-identified as Catholics, and asked them about the influences upon them in the practice of their Faith.

The most significant factor became very clear: “Young Catholics who practise their Catholic identity by attending church seem to do so primarily because their parents are Catholic churchgoers.”

Further influences were noted, such as having religious friends and attending a church school, but these did not contribute in a statistically significant way when added to parental Faith.

Francis and Casson conclude that for the Catholic Church in the UK, it might be wise to invest in the education and formation of Catholic parents.


United States

Such a conclusion echoes studies by Christian Smith and his collaborators in the US.

They undertook a similar study of 2,458 teenagers of all faiths and none (aged 13-19), asking questions about beliefs and practice, and this was published in Soul Searching (2005).

Five years on they repeated this for Souls in Transition (2009).

One of the aims of the study was to ask: what beliefs and influences among teenagers are predictors of Faith and practice among young adults aged 18-24 five years on?


Strong parental Faith

The results are fascinating. Among teenagers, strong parental Faith was the most important predictor, being joined in the very important category by the importance of religious Faith in everyday life during the teenage years, expressing few or no religious doubts about religious beliefs during the teenage years, having a powerful religious experience/feeling that prayers have been answered, and greater frequency of personal prayer and scripture reading.

Having many supportive religious adults around them and having religious friends appeared in the somewhat important category. Importantly, these factors worked most strongly in tandem.

So for example, teenagers whose lives featured the following four characteristics—strong parental religion, plus frequency of personal prayer, plus importance of religious Faith, plus frequency reading scriptures—had an 85 per cent chance of being in the highest category of religion five years later as a young adult.


Triangle of home

We might conclude the cumulative impact of several factors acting in tandem may well confirm that the famed triangle of home, school and parish is our best hope of forming our young people as disciples for the 21st century.

Further reflection and creativity could begin to strengthen these links further.

Examples of stronger links between parishes and schools might include using the church more often as a learning environment, more joint parish/school working on environmental or social justice projects, and greater involvement of local clergy in the life and worship of secondary schools.

Greater links between parents and parish seem also to be essential given the evidence of parental influence on their children’s Faith formation.

At Baptism, parents are referred to as the ‘first educators of their children in the ways of Faith,’ but do parishes give them the tools to carry out this essential task?

And is it time to ask whether parents and parishes have devolved their catechetical duties to already overworked schools?


Relationship with Christ

Those familiar with the increasingly popular work of Fr James Mallon (Divine Renovation) and Sherry Weddell (Forming Intentional Disciples) may recognise the seeds of a renewal of our entire parishes in such an appeal for parents to become well-formed and intentional followers of Jesus Christ, empowered to pass on their living relationship with Jesus Christ to their children.

Parishes might aid this process by, for example, dedicating some Sunday sermons every year to core teaching about the Catholic Faith, perhaps during Lent, the original season of preparation for Baptism.

Parishes might offer the Alpha course, or extend the RCIA catechumenate period to the whole parish.

All stages of sacramental preparation—as parishioners prepare for Marriage, and accompany their children’s preparation for Baptism, Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation—could be rich opportunities for Faith formation and confidence-building in parents.

We may be only at the beginning of a renewal which could affect all parishioners, whatever their age. Our young people are counting on us.


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