Over the past few months, ‘bullying’ has become a recurring topic of discussion among the members of Fusion, our youth ministry at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. For professing his faith one of our members is being bullied – at the Catholic High School he is attending.
Sam (a pseudonym) was ecstatic when he learned last year that he’d be attending a prominent Catholic high school in our area. However, about three months into his freshman year, he began telling us about the troubles he was having at school.
The bullying begins
It started when the topic of homosexuality was being discussed in Sam’s freshman religion class. In this particular class the students were permitted to debate the subject, back and forth. After Sam stated the Church’s stance on homosexuality, his classmates became offended and even infuriated. The teacher did not step in and say that what Sam was saying was correct. The teacher also did not try to explain or defend Church teaching. The students labeled Sam a bigot and continued to harass him in the hallway afterwards.
On another occasion, again in religion class, Sam stated that he doesn’t view pornography, and then explained to the class what the Catechism says about the topic:
“Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials” (CCC 2354).
After class, a fellow student followed Sam into the restroom and threatened to beat him if he ever spoke up against pornography again.
Teens Abandoning their Faith
While we may be quick to dismiss this as something that might happen in a public high school, this happened in a private school that has the word “Catholic” in its name. This is a high school which claims to teach the Catholic faith. This is very disconcerting.
We also can’t dismiss these incidents by thinking “Well, the other students probably misunderstood, or didn’t know, Sam.” Almost half of his religion class consists of kids that Sam attended a Catholic elementary school with. Now in high school, however, virtually every one of these kids has turned their backs on their Catholic upbringing.
According to Sam, these same kids that attended a Catholic grade school with him now curse and take the name of the Lord in vain, frequently. Some of these 14- and 15-year-olds now even proudly tell each other that they are drinking, smoking, and even engaging in hook-ups.
To make matters worse, whenever Sam walks by they assault him with illicit pictures on their cell phones. For his part, Sam has managed to stay true to his faith. He’s also grateful that our Youth Group and Youth Nights provide him with a safe haven.
Some Possible Fixes
Hearing about these and other school incidents makes my heart grow heavy. It would be easy to point a finger at and place blame for failure on the Catholic education system, or the students, or their parents. But finger pointing and placing blame won’t get to the root of the problem.
Instead, we need to dig deeper. We need to start by asking: What has happened to our Catholic teens today?
In the book Growing Young, authors Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin conducted extensive studies aimed at understanding today’s young people. They discovered several commonalities.
First, youths today are looking for answers to three questions say the authors: Who am I? Where do I fit in? What difference do I make? While this isn’t unique to our current generation of youths, “a recent study showed that 13- and 17-year-olds are more likely to feel ‘extreme stress’ than adults[.] Approximately 20 percent of teenagers confess that they worry ‘a great deal’ about current and future life events[.] Parents often don’t realize the constant heat felt by adolescents, increasing the pressure for them to figure out who they are and what’s important to them” [pg. 101].
Second, in their attempts to discover their identities, teenagers find their search “closely linked with their quest for belonging” [pg. 104]. In their search, teenagers typically turn to social media to stay connected with friends, family, and the world at large. When they yearn to connect with others through more than a screen, they turn to sexual experimentation.
Finally, many teenagers “[view] neighbors, relatives, teachers, coaches, pastors, priests, and parents as too busy or too self-absorbed to invest in them without an agenda. The family, once a hub of belonging[,] now increases pressure and a sense of loneliness” [pg. 107].
Investing in our Youth
As a result of these feelings, today’s average teenagers begin to lose enthusiasm and become apprehensive about their futures. Mind you, the Growing Young writers found these results were the same for all teenagers. Religious affiliation did not make a difference.
So, where does faith fit into the lives of teenagers? In their findings, the writers learned that “even though church activities and leadership often make young people busier, there’s a significant upside. Congregational involvement seems to lessen anxiety by reminding young people of what’s important and inviting them to step away from the chaos of their lives to refocus on loving God and others” [pg. 102].
In other words, we need to invest more in our youths. It’s not enough to just teach them facts about their Catholic faith. We can’t just give them a curt “Just believe and don’t question it”. If they don’t understand why it’s relevant to their lives, teens will likely walk away from the Church. They will abandon their faith. They’ll settle for the false promises that society tries to sell them. But inviting our teenagers to become more active participants in our parishes, will help them stay grounded in their faith.
How do we do that? Inviting them to participate in the life of the parish as ushers, cantors, and lectors is a good first step. Having more programs that address the issues facing today’s teenagers is also a good idea. But we must also be willing to lead and mentor them when they approach us with questions about the Faith. And we also have to empathize with them, and the struggles that they face.
And please remember to pray for our youths and young adults.