Amy O’Neill (last name changed for privacy) grew up in the Catholic Church, slacked off during her stint in the U.S Air Force and then stopped going to church altogether.
She stayed away for 20 years.
Even during those years, she considered herself Catholic.
O’Neill, 43, is a typical example according to a 2010 CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) survey finding that while 88 percent of U.S adult Catholics don’t attend Mass on a regular basis, they still consider themselves Catholic.
“I just didn’t think I needed to go,” she said. “I grew up in a household where we were forced to go to Mass each week and went to CCD classes. I made my first Communion and was confirmed like the rest of my siblings, but our family life was far from spiritual. When I left home, I just didn’t see the point in going.”
Now that she is the mother of a young son, O’Neill is not only attending Sunday Mass, but also having her son baptized and volunteering as a catechist in her parish.
“I think I appreciate it more than before,” she said. “I want to be here and I want my son to grow up loving his faith. I don’t want him to make the same mistakes I did – I had such an emptiness with the bad choices in my life, and the only thing that filled it was getting back into the church and participating in the sacraments.”
Kids don’t attend for many reasons
O’Neill’s experience is not unusual, but not associated with a fast-growing movement either, according to Dan Scholz, associate professor and chair of the religious studies/philosophy department at Cardinal Stritch University, and executive director of the St. Clare Center for Catholic Life.
Scholz recently made several presentations around the archdiocese on “Why Won’t My Kids Go to Church?”
“I think kids don’t attend church for many reasons, some of which include a lack of role modeling by adult lay Catholics and parents, the post-modern U.S. world that de-values faith and religion and a 40-year history of insufficient catechesis,” he said.
Whether it is suffering through Mass with a rambunctious toddler climbing over the pews and scaling the statues, a disgruntled teen who would rather be sleeping, a newly indifferent college student, or grandchildren attending a non-denominational church down the street, parents from all walks of life are challenged with children unwilling to attend church and follow in their faith.
Until recently, Teresa Hill, a member of St. James Parish, Kenosha, had no trouble getting her three children to attend Mass. Unless they were ill, Alyssa, 17, Derek, 16 and Andrea, 15, attended each week and participated in religious education classes. Lately, the teens have begun to rebel because Duane, their father, does not attend on a regular basis.
“They don’t understand why they have to go if he doesn’t,” said Teresa. “I tell them it is a sin not to go and it breaks the Third Commandment, which is ‘Keep Holy the Sabbath Day.’ My girls say they probably will not go once they are out of the house, but I tell them as long as they are in the house, they will go. My son is an altar boy and told me the other day that we should only have to go once a month. I told him that I did not make the rules; God did when he gave Moses the tablet with the Commandments on it. I told him that with all that God gives us, we should be able to give back an hour a week in gratitude and he agreed. Whew!”
Mom leads by example
Teresa is concerned that once the teens leave home, that they will shelve their Mass attendance and their faith with their high school diplomas. Her concerns bring her frequently before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer.
“I left the church for six years when I thought I knew everything,” she admitted. “I pray they never go through this, but I have a strong feeling they will. My ultimate prayer is that they never die without repentance so that they will have a chance to go to heaven. God gives us a free will. He wants us in heaven with him – I tell them that, too.”
Through leading by example, Teresa hopes her children will remain grounded in the Catholic faith. She openly shares Jesus’ love, attends Benediction with her children and encourages them to attend holy hours.
“I read miracle stories and talk to them about the miracles that have happened in my life,” she said. “I tell them that the Mass is heaven on earth and I tell them we are privileged to receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Mass. No other religion receives his true Body and Blood. I tell them about all the people that walked away from Jesus and I ask them not to walk away.”
Laziness is primary reason
Despite working as director of administration at St. Robert Parish, Union Grove, and serving as a liturgical musician at her parish, St. Francis de Sales, Lake Geneva, Sarah and Scott Gray’s two sons are no longer regular Mass attendees.
“They grew up attending Catholic school and both went to Mass regularly until they turned 18,” Sarah said. “They never fought it because they knew it was expected, but once they became legal adults, they stopped going every week.”
At first, Sarah was disappointed, but then remembered that she, too, was not a regular, practicing Catholic when she was a young adult either.
“I know that they are believers, and at this point, that is all I can hope for and pray that they will find their way to whatever they are supposed to be when ready or when God calls them,” she said.
“At first it bothered me that they stopped going, but right now I think the primary reason is that they are lazy and want to sleep. We don’t fight about it; they know that church and my faith are important to me. But I can tell by the way they live their lives that what they learned throughout their childhood and youth has stuck with them in regards to their faith, because even though they aren’t going they are still living their lives as if they do. The faith has permeated their lives and that, to me, is more important than anything.”
Situation is common
The Gray’s and Hill’s situation is a common one, and according to Scholz, four generations comprise the world and help to explain the overall feelings of religious apathy.
The Greatest Generation, born in 1945 and before, the Baby Boomers, 1946-1964, Generation X, 1965-1979, and the Millennials, 1980-2000 and within the wide variation of ages, are moments in history that have significantly altered the framework of family and faith.
Scholz considers the 1960s, “The race to the moon” era, marred by the Vietnam War and public assassinations of U.S. leaders.
“The 1970s are remembered for Watergate, the energy crisis, the beginning of the Middle East dance, and latch-key kids,” he said. “The 1980s are remembered for John Paul II, the collapse of Russia, and the birth of technology.”
The 1990s bring memories of the Challenger space flight, Columbine, and helicopter parents. The 2000s are remembered for 9/11, the war on terror and lawnmower parents – those who attempt to mow down and smooth out all obstacles in their child’s path.
Somewhere along the way, following in the family faith no longer was a natural occurrence.
“The problem, though, isn’t just with today’s kids,” said Scholz. “The problem spans three generations: Baby-boomers, Gen-Xers and the Millenials.”
Death of faith and reason
Rather than serving Jesus and the church, the “religion” of the United States has become the death of faith and reason, explained Scholz, who cites as examples: bumper stickers articulating popular social, political and cultural conversations, and the age of technology. Finally, the reversal of respect for adults with TV programs such as ‘Are you smarter than a 5th grader?’ in which children are treated as if they are superior to adults.
Wearing down the faith structure with books and movies such as “The Da Vinci Code,” the sex abuse crisis, lack of understanding of basic catechism such as the Ten Commandments and the meaning of the Eucharist have eroded the fabric of Catholicism among families.
“We need to be better role models for our children, and we need to tell our kids the truth about what they are missing when they opt not to attend church,” said Scholz. “I tell adult children who don’t want to attend that their attitude is, in part, an indictment against us who are charged with passing on the faith. And, in part, a reflection of success of the unofficial state religion of the U.S. – moral relativism and secular humanism.”
Demographics show that the largest religious denomination in the U.S. still belongs to Roman Catholics with 70 million members. The second largest religious denomination comprises 26 million “fallen-away” Catholics. The greatest challenge is in retaining the practicing Catholics and bringing back those who have put their faith on a shelf. Doing that requires a commitment to learning how to become defenders of the faith.
‘Meet them where they’re at’
“I have noticed that many of us, kids and adults, are far too religious illiterate and ill-prepared to defend the faith to the larger secular culture,” said Scholz.
As a core team member for Crossroad Lifeteen, Eric Antrim, a member of St. Therese the Little Flower Parish, Kenosha, regularly encourages teens who aren’t enthusiastic about attending church or growing as Catholics.
“I think the best way for me is to just meet them where they are at – really listen to them and just be real with them,” he said. “They don’t want fake; they really do want the truth, so just being yourself and being honest with them gets them to follow and trust you. As St. John Bosco said, ‘Get them to love you and they will follow you anywhere.’”
As a father of three children, ages 17, 11, and 10, Scholz and his wife, Bonnie, a choral music director and performing arts chair at Pius XI High School, have also struggled with encouraging their children to attend Mass and grow in their faith.
“I know of no one who doesn’t face this challenge,” he said. “Our surrounding culture and recent U.S history has a profound impact on our kids and us, which, in turn, has significant impact on this issue.”
To combat the trend of indifferent Catholics, Scholz states five ways to not only get the kids to attend church, but to keep them there into adulthood.
“The kids know today that the world is dangerous and unsafe,” he said, “But they need to know that the world was created by God and it is ‘good.’”
Popular culture dictates that adults are not as smart as children, but they need to know that adults are in control and know what they are doing.
“They are told that adults cannot be trusted, but they need to know and believe that adults will keep them safe,” Scholz said. “They are told that religion is a private, individual, relative choice, but in essence, religion is communal and sacramental.”
Finally, kids believe that computers, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter control all things, but they need to know that God is the Lord of history and the universe and nothing is more powerful.
Most importantly, Scholz encourages parents to tell their children the truth about the Catholic faith.
“Mass is our human encounter with the divine, the resurrected Christ,” he said. “Be a role model for your kids by going to church yourself! See you at Mass.”
Scholz said sharing one’s faith and experiences will bring a human side to the Catholic faith and give children and teens a way to relate to parents through evangelizing moments.
“Show your kids how to exercise an adult faith life in your parish. Assume responsibility for the success of your parish,” he said. “Be counter-cultural and defend your faith to your kids. Educate and form yourself in our Catholic faith.”