It’s no secret that young people are abandoning the church. The reasons behind the rebellion and abandonment are complex. No one seems to have a full understanding of the reasoning behind the millennial generation’s denial of the Catholic Church and their subsequent association as “Nones.” As a young person from the millennial generation, even I cannot claim to know the reasons, but I do have an idea.
Today’s culture tells us to fit in and follow all the popular trends and progressive ideas (moral relativism). We are urged to fit into a certain mold and be the same as everyone else in how we dress, talk, act and, most importantly, what we believe. And why shouldn’t young people do so? It’s the easiest way to get by in life and there are no realistic examples convincing them that the path of religious orthodoxy is a viable option. But I believe that this kind of thinking does terrible damage to the souls of young people who are naturally rebellious and individualistic.
And this is where the disconnect lies in my view. I believe that young people need genuine Christian examples of passion, courage, and self-denial to help them realize how incredible and wonderful the Christian life really is. But where will these examples come from? Well, they can come from those of us who live our faith every day, in how we live our lives and love others, thereby providing a realistic template of what it means to live for God.
But we can also look to the past and the lives of the saints. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Aloysius Gonzaga are two people in particular who can have a monumental impact on the lives of young people today. They are wonderful examples of selflessness, devotion, passion and joy coupled with a deep commitment to God.
Young people today need to be able to see that the Christian lifestyle is not only doable but it also exemplifies the true nature of courage and rebellion – characteristics that all youth are secretly longing for.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, or PGF as he is lovingly referred to among my friends and family, provides one of the greatest possible examples of a young person passionately living out the Christian life. Many times we tend to paint the saints as untouchably holy but PGF was a prime example of an everyday saint who lived an extraordinary life under ordinary circumstances.
He was an avid outdoorsman and as a college student he loved to organize hikes and camping trips with his group of friends into the Swiss Alps. He also would lead them in prayer, encourage them to attend mass, and coordinate their efforts to serve the poor in Turin, Italy.
Instead of being content with material wealth and comfort, Blessed Pier found true joy in daily mass, praying the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and serving the poor of Turin. This was all without support or direction from his parents, who pushed him to take over the newspaper that his father had founded. But Pier Giorgio knew deep down that there was much more to live for than simply collecting a paycheck and acquiring power. He once wrote, “To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth, that is not living, but existing.”
By living a passionate, adventurous, virtuous life, Blessed Pier Giorgio provides a template for how young people today can be fulfilled while striving to please God instead of man. Though not someone who founded a religious order or contributed volumes of theological works to the Church, he lived a heroic life by choosing every day to strive for heaven. Young people today need his example of courage and joy to help them likewise reach to the heights. When today’s youth are tempted to be content with worldly gains and fitting in, Pier Giorgio reminds us that we are made for something greater and that it is possible to live a holy life in the modern age.
“. . . Pier Giorgio is the antidote for what ails our youth culture,” says Christine Wohar (founder of FrassatiUSA), as quoted by Emily Stimpson Chapman.
“He wouldn’t have known the meaning of a safe space, he had everything — wealth, privilege, good looks — but he was always getting out of his comfort zone to serve the sick and poor. He knew that money couldn’t buy true peace; it was just the opposite.”
St. Aloysius Gonzaga
As a Gonzaga University alumnus (Go Zags!), St. Aloysius Gonzaga has a special place in my heart. I believe that his life story is a prime example of how young people truly desire to live – passionately, recklessly, and with a sense of rebellion that drives them to seek after God.
From an early age Aloysius devoted himself to prayer and penance. Like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Gonzaga spurned his father’s wealth and chose to commit his life to serving God. And also similar to PGF, Gonzaga had little to no spiritual direction growing up. When he joined the Jesuits he actually found the intensive lifestyle to be easier than the spiritual practices he had imposed on himself.
Modern young people tend to dabble in this or that and avoid diving into something that might demand their time or their life. But Aloysius illustrates how to throw your entire self into a worthwhile endeavor and truly experience the life God has for us. He died at the age of 22 after contracting the disease of the sick he was serving during a plague in Rome. His short life is an example of the effect one person can have if they can grasp the heroic virtue found in having a relationship with God.
Striving for More
Both Frassati and Gonzaga provide much needed answers to today’s youth. Here are two young, vibrant, attractive, athletic men with the world at their fingertips and they chose a life of sacrifice and holiness instead of worldly gains. Why would they do this? Could it be that they found something more fulfilling, more joyful, and more heroic than what the world has to offer?
We (young people) think that we want an easy, comfortable life but deep down we truly desire a life of adventure, passion, courage, and discipline. Millennials want to be a part of something important, something big, and to feel a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people. We need to be challenged, to be told what is true, good, and beautiful, and to be given the spiritual ammunition to rise up and strive for holiness – life’s ultimate endeavor. This attitude of striving for higher goals may attract young people to the Church today if we remain steadfast in preaching it.
This is why Blessed Pier Giorgi Frassati and St. Aloysius Gonzaga can be such key elements in the battle over the hearts of the millennial generation. They lived vibrant, revolutionary, selfless, heroic lives in light of the gospel and their joy and fulfillment was undeniable despite pain and hardship. With every opportunity to seek worldly pleasures, they instead chose the Catholic Church. I believe that the examples of these two men and their discovery of adventure and purpose in the Church is what can have an impact in attracting young people to Catholicism.
The problem is that modern society has told young people that this deep desire we all feel for a heroic pursuit of heaven is best fulfilled by serving our own needs. But while secular society is alluring young people by promising worldly success and a sense of belonging, the Church is failing to stand firm in promoting a higher way of life based on the examples of the saints. Why then are we surprised that young people are rejecting Catholicism and instead choosing to create their own ‘religion?’
As Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition; the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.”
Young people have a propensity for rebellion. When young people are told to do something, chances are they will challenge it until they are ready to adopt it on their own. I think this needs to be factored in to how young people are approached when it comes to Catholicism.
If young people are dissatisfied with what the world has to offer (and I think deep down they all are), then the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church is the ultimate rebellion against what we are told is important. Blessed Frassati and St. Aloysius both provide real, relatable examples of what this kind of rebellion looks like. They are models of how the Church has survived over 2,000 years of attacks and heresies – by rebelling against the ever-changing trends of modern society and remaining steadfast to the truths that God has revealed through the Catholic Church. Truth doesn’t change. More young people need to hear that.
More than Just Nice
Coupled with the Church’s historical rebellion of societal norms, an idea that needs to be continuously emphasized is its rejection of being “nice” as a goal of the spiritual life. In order to maintain order and peace in society, we are told to be “nice” and cruise through life without hurting anyone’s feelings or ruffling too many feathers.
But no big things are accomplished by simply being “nice.” Look at the saints of the past – John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, and even Pope John Paul II – all were extremely defiant in the face of evil or persecution but retained their hope in God. They stood up to governments, kings, countries, and heresies in order to proclaim the truth and offered their lives for a higher cause that they believed in. Could they have done all of this if they were committed to simply being “nice?” These are the attitudes that young people need to hear more of today. Society wants us to believe that a revolutionary, passionate life is not possible in the religious lifestyle but the history of the Church and the examples of numerous saints say otherwise.
Even some Protestants seem to agree with these sentiments. Protestant author and president of Ransomed Heart Ministries John Eldredge addressed this very issue on page in his book Desire (pg. 278):
“Christianity has come to the point where we believe that there is no higher aspiration for the human soul than to be nice. We are producing a generation of men and women whose greatest virtue is that they don’t offend anyone. Then we wonder why there is no more passion for Christ. How can we hunger and thirst after righteousness if we have ceased hungering and thirsting all together? As C.S. Lewis said, “We castrate the gelding and bid him be fruitful”.
A Life of Truth and Adventure
I think this is an incredibly difficult time to be a Catholic. Covert social pressure and persecution is rampant and it is easier than ever to skate through life without truly living for a higher cause. And while young people tell us that they want easy, comfortable lives, deep down they are all longing for an adventure – something to believe in and grasp onto.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Aloysius Gonzaga are excellent examples of what that can look like for young people today. While snubbing the world’s riches, they passionately and rebelliously gave their lives to the just cause of serving God and others and living out the truth of the Catholic Church. Through their intercession, may young people today be inspired to do the same.