On a recent, rainy Saturday afternoon, in a sudden fit to rid myself of things unneeded, I found a treasure in a long untouched box in my garage. It was a little wooden crucifix. When I was too young even for school, it hung on the wall of my room, placed there by my parents so that I would think of Jesus, crucified for me. Chipped and faded, its corpus rusty and bent, I kissed it.
Other memories crowded my mind. I was excited about Santa Claus during December long ago. My father took me in his lap and explained why each figure was in our Nativity scene. His stories made sense. His faith verified what he said. I learned what Christmas is.
My first, and best, lesson in the reality of the Eucharist was when I watched my mother, with such love, humility and trust in God, kneel in prayer after receiving holy Communion.
I thank God for the devoted Dominican nuns in Nashville, Tennessee, who taught me in the grades and for the wonderful priests, my heroes, who provided my secondary schooling, but my mother and father gave me my faith.
Involved in religion deeply for a long time, I know this. My experience was not unique.
Church leaders, educators, child psychologists and other experts persistently say, and have said, that the first and most important teachers of the young are parents, reinforced by the parish and by the educational institutions attended by the children. Parents know this.
Considerable attention has been given to a poll, first reported on EWTN and by Catholic News Agency, regarding Catholic Americans. At the center of this attention has been the reaction of Catholics to various political situations in the country, the forthcoming elections, the candidates and so forth.
Another finding hit me, and, as I thought about it, it hit me hard. The poll stated that of the Catholics who were interviewed, only 39% stated that they attended Mass weekly, presumably on the weekends.
A hefty 20% replied that, in effect, outside weddings and funerals, they never go to Mass.
Every priest in this country knows that such statistics are factual. Every priest in this country also knows that slippage especially is pronounced among youth and young adults. Everybody knows it. Always, the young have been inclined to sow their wild oats, but today’s numbers suggest that to blame is not the fall to temptation or dash to liberty that often overtakes younger people, but rejection of religion — and “rejection” is the right word.
“Religion” also is the right word, because while this study looked at Catholics — and in certain categories of the population, the Catholic Church definitely is losing ground — religion itself is declining in strength. Roman Catholicism in the United States is surviving better, but this is not altogether a reason for Catholics to be glad.
Diminishment of religion, respect for God, even in other denominations, is bad, bad, bad.
What are bishops doing about it? What are priests doing? Why don’t the hierarchy, clergy, educators, the media, somebody, do something?
Realities exposed by this poll, I devoutly hope, will summon Catholic parents to do something, to take the lead and maybe to take the bull by the horns in their own spiritual lives — not to corral their children, whatever the age, into the Church, but instead to convince them that God is real, and Jesus is real, just as my father drew me to believe when he talked about the Christmas manger, and that it really is about each person, just as my parents taught me when they mounted that little child’s crucifix on my wall so many decades ago.
Bishops, priests and teachers can help, but they only can, and should, help. The ultimate responsibility belongs to parents when it comes to causing the young to think that religion is important.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.