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The Elephant

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In the end, the real story is not about teens, the failure of modern adolescent catechesis, or youth ministry. In many ways it’s not even about parents. It’s about something much larger.

There’s an elephant crowding the pews of many Catholic sanctuaries. Most see it, but mostly don’t address it. Maybe we’ve simply become accustomed to it. Maybe it’s been a part of our spiritual landscape for so long that it has blended into the design of the stained glass windows and we largely ignore it. Maybe we’re afraid we will appear weird, disrespectful, or unfaithful if we honestly describe what we see.

When it comes to elephants, it’s better to be a child. Children clearly notice and rudely point out unusual things like out-of-place beasts, while adults allow them to wander unrestrained. Children lack manners when it comes to the obvious. They publicly embarrass their elders by saying things like, “Mommy why is that man so ugly?”

Our children have identified the elephant in the sanctuary when they groan on Sunday morning, saying, “I don’t want to go to church, it’s soooo boring.” Or, “Religious education is a waste of my time. We only repeat the same stuff over and over.” But, children will be children! Consider if we took seriously their pleas for dietary freedom. Dinner would consist of soda, candy, cookies, and ice cream. Children don’t know what’s good for them, we reassure ourselves.

Yet, if we pause long enough and take a painfully honest look at our overall parish experience, perhaps we may agree with our children? Sure it’s impolite to say, “I am bored by Mass.” Or, “I don’t get anything out of church.” Not only is it impolite, we may also feel guilty saying it. Echoing through our consciences are rebuttals like, “You only get out of Mass what you put into it.” Or, You’re are not there to take, but to give.” Those pious platitudes have given the elephant free reign in the sanctuary. They have anchored us into the religious status quo. And, the results are telling: many Catholics have quietly left our ranks. Some simply don’t attend church. Others have found friendlier spiritual homes outside the Catholic tradition. Many of those who remain are indifferent and spiritually stagnant. I am not sure if “no pain, no gain” works in this context.

This certainly does not represent every American Catholic’s experience. There are many vibrant, alive, and spiritually engaging parishes. As a matter-of-fact, we will be drawing on the insights of some of those parishes in blogs.

Furthermore, this is not an indictment against Catholic pastoral leaders—many who have invested their entire lives to the Church at great personal sacrifice. As one of those leaders, I understand the frustration and discouragement that accompanies exhaustive efforts with little return. Sometimes, my first inclination is to blame the very people I am called to serve. Better sense comes my way when I imagine, for instance, the Coke Corporation blaming the public for not drinking their product. Imagine Coke’s board of directors shaming members of the public for switching to Pepsi because they were dissatisfied with Coke? Likewise, as pastoral leaders, we must avoid the occupational hazard of blaming the very people we are called to serve. Sure, chronic complainers exist, but they can’t be our excuse for not listening to those we serve. And yes, there are religious consumers, but they consume because they are hungry and searching for more. Who really consumes for the sake of consuming? Consumption masks our hungers. Our culture has changed, and we are called to feed and serve people by meeting them where they are.


Matthew Toohill

March 3, 2011


This is exactly what I’ve been feeling, and feel every year after the Confirmation retreat. In a couple of more weeks our 8th graders will be confirmed, and maybe 1 or 2 out of 60 will hang around for Youth Ministry at least for their freshman year. I can see the exact same problems from my own efforts, those of my leaders, but also wonder where to find the time, and leaders to do better. One thing this blog left out was that its the Holy Spirit who will change hearts, all I can do is tell them about how the Spirit changed my heart. Like it says in GTD, seed grows itself.


March 4, 2011


Thanks for your comments and the reminder on the Holy Spirit, Matt!