What About the Kids? – Raised Catholic episode 33

The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.

Today is episode 33: What About the Kids?

Well, hello friends. Today’s episode is kind of a challenging one for me. As some of you know, I write and record this podcast over the span of four or five days in a given week, and the topic is normally inspired during the course of my long run that week or while reading Scripture or some other epiphany time.  The theme kind of rises to the surface somehow and then I just kind of start praying, researching, and writing. And this week, the following phrase kept coming to me: what about the kids. Hmmm.

I teach music with small children in preschools, enrichment centers, libraries, that kind of thing, and I’ve done this work for over eighteen years. I love it and as I return to in-person teaching, sometimes while wearing a mask, I am reminded of the strong connection that you can make with a child with just your eyes. You can see so much in a child’s eyes, sometimes I could cry at the vulnerability that’s right there on the surface, their emotion, and how much they long to be seen and known. In today’s episode we’re exploring a few angles on kids and the Church.

Well, we all know the horrific stories of how the Church has victimized children, how priests and religious have covered for each other in the ugliest form of clericalism, prioritizing their fellow priests over the welfare of kids. And we’d like to think that dark chapter is over, but then we hear more stories from the past and the present too, the reckoning that’s never fully arrived. 

This week ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick became the highest ranking clergy member to face criminal charges for sexually assaulting a teenager at a wedding reception in the 1970s.  By the time that happened, fellow cardinals and the Vatican too were well aware that McCarrick was abusing seminarians, but his status in the Church as a major player and fundraiser kept so many clergy quiet, and this silence allowed more people including children to be victimized over the span of decades. In our Church, they had no voice. No one speaking up for them, no one seeing the pain which is life-long, inescapable, family-wrecking trauma.

Then there was the recent discovery of unmarked graves at Church-run schools in Canada (and likely here in America too) of hundreds of indigenous children who were taken from their families with the goal of assimilating them into the primary culture.  The stories have been out there for years in native communities, of the widespread physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, the neglect, of the infants born to the young girls who were housed there. Yet for decades, no one heard them.  No one paid any attention.  Though the USCCB has expressed support for the investigation here in the US by the Department of the Interior to find and identify similar sites, the reaction from the Church seems to me at least, muted.  As a Church, we don’t seem to lament well, we don’t apologize readily, and our efforts in truth and reconciliation can seem hollow and halfhearted sometimes, don’t they? I think of Jesus when He said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”, and then I wonder if the His Church’s reaction to the harm done to children quite measures up.

And all of this, plus the politicization of the American Church, has led to a full-blown credibility crisis right now, and this has impact for all of us but most particularly for the generation of kids that is rising into adulthood today.  If you’re listening to this podcast and you have teenagers, young adults, or even kids in their thirties, it will come as no surprise to you that the distrust of the Church as an institution has made a huge impact on church attendance and membership. 

This group, particularly Gen Z, could readily be described as seekers. They’re open, but generally speaking, they’re not finding faith in the organization of church.

A two-year study by St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown which was released in 2018 indicated that the disaffiliation from churches among young people is at times associated with intensification rather than diminishment of personal faith. And that means they’re finding God, just not in the pews. 

And research from Michele Margolis’s book: From the Politics to the Pews, which I’ll link along with lots of other sources in today’s show notes, suggests that the strong association between religion and the Republican party is fueling the divide in the American church. 

Further, a poll by Gallup from this past spring has just 47% of American adults claiming membership in a church at all, and if you’re listening to this podcast, you likely have stories about the members of Gen Z or millennials in your own family who are driving that statistic. I do. I remember teaching tenth grade confirmation CCD about five years ago to a class who largely identified as atheist, agnostic, or just plain bored. They didn’t know why they were there. They didn’t know why they were getting confirmed except that their mothers told them to.  It was a challenging year for me as a teacher, and at the end of it, to be honest, I felt kind of helpless. I decided to write each student a letter with prayerfully chosen descriptive words just for them, and I told them the Church was not perfect, but that it was their home. This was all I could think of to do, to let these kids know that I saw them, and that God did, too.

Gen Z in particular is more engaged in activism and far more interested in social justice than the generations who came before them.  They’re idealistic, they value authenticity, they want to belong to something good and positive, they’re caring for the people on the margins and the disenfranchised, and they’re seeking justice for the oppressed. In my view, this capable and determined generation – if they encountered Jesus and His Gospel in a real and personal way would, as Catherine of Siena said, “be who God meant for them to be and set the world on fire.”

So, what do we do with all of this?  How do we reach them? What about the kids? 

I come back to my experience with my young music students – their longing to be seen.  And I remember the children whose Church-inflicted pain has never been fully seen and the kids who grew up in pews hearing more about how to do things ‘the right way’ from a Church that so often gets it wrong than about the reality that God made them for a purpose and loves them personally and fully. 

I think we have to see them and somehow make a way for them to know the way that God sees and loves them too, just as they are, with unlimited possibility. 

Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

And friend, I think we have hindered them. It’s not the Jesus or the Gospel they’re rejecting, but it is the example and the messages they’re hearing from the pulpit or Catholic media, or some in leadership that just does not sound like a loving God to them. 

This problem is too big for any one person to solve and I don’t have a roadmap.  I won’t recommend a program or a curriculum to you today. I’ll just say that my prayer, for my young adult kids and for the kids they grew up with and for the kids I teach is that they feel seen, loved, and encountered by the Risen Christ in every day. I pray that God would send messengers and experiences of Christ’s love to them in a way that will lead them forward in loving relationship with God in their life. And maybe you’ll be that messenger for someone today. Maybe you’ll see and pour into a child or teen or young adult with the faith that was given to you. I hope so.

The statistics do tell a dark story both in our past and for the future of the Church, but the Holy Spirit is bigger, and I do believe this generation will set the world on fire with the goodness and clarity of God but friend, it just may not be in the way we expect. So, let’s be open and let’s pray for them together.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen. 

God, you create each soul to know you, so today we bring you the kids, the ones who are suffering and the ones who have not encountered you yet, the ones who have never felt seen and we ask you to be present to them right where they are and to awaken in them the fullness of your Spirit living within them. And help us to be Your Hands.  Help us to see and to care well for the children in our midst, ever aware that their angels are always before You.  And God, please let the Church – in its buildings and its clergy, but more importantly in us, the Body of Christ, be a safe place for kids to learn and grow. In the name of Jesus and under the mantle of Mary, we pray, amen.

Well, thanks for listening today friends. Blessings on you, your kids your grandchildren, your students – all of the precious kids in your circle, and I’ll see you next time. 

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