For the past month, our Word on Fire production team was in Rome with Bishop Barron for the big Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. (I joined them there this two weeks ago.)
It was an amazing experience. We produced nearly 40 videos during that span, a testament to our phenomenal production team (shoutout to Manny Marquez, our tireless videographer!). You can watch all the videos at WordFromRome.com.
Throughout the month, we tried to provide three things. First, daily video updates and commentaries from Bishop Barron, giving followers a behind-the-scenes peek at the Synod proceedings. It was something no other bishop was doing, so it was unique and fun.
Second, Fr. Steve Grunow (CEO of Word on Fire) and Joseph Gloor (our Producer) visited nearly a dozen churches and holy sites around Rome, taking viewers on a virtual pilgrimage throughout the Synod. At each church, they sat down for a conversation about that church’s spiritual significance and the lessons it offers in regards to young people and the faith. The whole series is beautiful and profound, and we’ll be doing more with it in the coming months at Word on Fire, so stay tuned.
But the third series was probably my favorite: we hit the streets around Rome to interview random young people about God, religion, and the Church. We talked to people from all over the world, from at least 20 different countries, encouraging them to speak candidly so we could listen to them and better understand their beliefs.
Their responses were both discouraging and illuminating.
They were discouraging because they affirmed how profoundly we’ve failed at spreading the basic truths of Christianity. Most young people had, at best, a third-grade understanding of God and faith. Most of their answers were muddled and incoherent, and I say that with little judgement against them; the fault lies almost certainly with their parents, pastors, and teachers, who totally failed to pass on the faith.
Yet the conversations were also illuminating, because they revealed where we should focus our evangelistic energies: on the very basics. It was clear few of these people had ever been evangelized, much less catechized. They had never heard the kerygma, the basic Good News of Christianity. They couldn’t articulate what we mean by God, or anything the Church has done besides facilitate the abuse of young children.
They weren’t ardent anti-Catholics; they were mostly just apatheists, people who just don’t care about God or Catholicism.
Going into these interviews, we at Word on Fire had studied all the major surveys about young people and faith. So we knew the number one reason why they don’t practice any religion: they “no longer believe.” They doubt God exists, or they reject the Church, or they disagree with her moral or religious teachings. Whatever the case, they just no longer believe—they’re not buying what Christianity has to offer.
But these interviews taught us that when they say they don’t believe in God or the Church, they’re often rejecting a caricature. When they’re ambivalent about Jesus, it’s often because they were led to see him as just another nice, wise man who helped poor people, an interesting figure but not someone who upends your life or compels you to follow him.
In fact, as I sat next to Bishop Barron, watching one of these street interview videos, he said to me, “You know, for many of these young people, following Jesus makes as much sense as giving your life to Gandalf. It’s just nonsensical. For them, Jesus and Gandalf are basically the same: mythical figures who may be interesting, but have absolutely no relevance to the real world.”
I was especially struck by one respondent, whom we asked, “What’s the best and worst thing about the Catholic Church?” Shockingly, he couldn’t think of a single answer to either part of that question. (He didn’t even mention the sex abuse crisis as an example of a bad thing.) Catholicism just wasn’t even on his radar. It’s not that he was anti-Catholic or had any resistance to the Church. He was just completely ignorant and ambivalent.
It would be like someone from the Church of Scientology approaching you on the street, and asking you to identify the best and worst thing about Scientology. You’d probably struggle to think of anything, and that’s because you basically never think of Scientology. For many young people, the Catholic Church is in the same category—it’s totally irrelevant.
Whether you’re a parent, pastor, youth minister, teacher, catechist, or anyone who cares about the faith of young people, take a little time and digest these five street interviews. Get a sense of what young people are actually thinking today. Share these videos with your priest; discuss them with your small group or friends. Ponder them. And then decide how you’re going to help reverse this terrible slide.
The answers here may be sobering, but as with any troubling diagnosis, they can also galvanize us, redoubling our commitment to this desperate work of evangelization.