The church’s future: losing hope, gaining confidence

By Kevin Feyen

Special to The Witness

I used to have hope in the future of the church. My hope was how I coped with my observations that things weren’t going so hot for us as a Catholic Church. I’ve spent 20 years working in the field of faith formation and there is not a lot of evidence that shows success. We have seen national studies demonstrate that we as Catholics rank lower than all other Christian denominations in raising faith-filled teenagers. We have seen decreasing Mass attendance, fewer baptisms, fewer financial contributors, fewer priests, and on and on. For the past few decades, things have not looked too good for us. So, we had hope. Our need to re-examine faith formation was clear. And, in response to our need, we delved into study.

Kevin Feyen

We learned that more often than not, parents, not programs, were more effective at forming children in the faith. We learned that faith formation is more than merely pushing theological knowledge, but also involves forming habits and values. We learned that the essential reason the church offers programming for children is so that we can form and support their parents (and not replace them) as the primary catechists of their children. We learned that the more active families are in the church, the greater likelihood that their children will practice their faith in the future. We learned that different people have different needs and “one size fits all” fails most. We worked hard to see the ways to move our church forward. We worked to revitalize the way we engage our families. We went through some serious “gut-checks” and “ego-checks” to move from what we thought might be nice, to what we observed was actually needed. We re-imagined what success would look like. And, we took some small, baby steps, slowly, but surely modifying our methods in a new direction. We worked with hope. For the past few years, we’ve been tracking some success.

We have seen parishes engage in the Strong Catholic Families process which builds a stronger partnership between parish staff and the parents of the parish with the single goal of working together to build a strong faith for the youth of the parish. We have seen new innovative methods being utilized when we gather young people. And, we have seen the Archdiocese of Dubuque develop the largest diocesan delegation to the National Catholic Youth Conference. Sure, good things are happening. But, to me, hope didn’t apply on Saturday, Nov. 19 at Youth Jam in Waterloo. Youth Jam gathered 160 middle school children and about 60 adults who accompanied them. I saw some amazing stuff! I saw families playing together and praying together. I saw our keynote speaker lean hard on the youth with a message of how important they are and how much God loves them. Even though he spoke for what would be like a 55-minute sermon, I didn’t see a single young person roll their eyes, look bored or behave with any disrespect. These young people were accompanied by their parents and other caring adults whose presence clearly stated, “There is nothing more important on a Saturday evening than our Catholic faith.”

When I saw over 150 middle school youth gathered for a Mass late on a Saturday night, after a long day of games and listening and praying, sitting on folding chairs with their friends near by, with all the angst and hyperactive tendencies that one would expect in a group of 12-year-old boys and girls, I lost my hope in the Catholic Church. What caught my eye, and hit me in the gut, was a group of eight boys sitting 20 feet from my family. Throughout the Mass, these boys prayed reverently and seriously, yet joyfully. They watched Father with great anticipation during the homily. They sang the songs. They said their responses. They looked engaged. They looked like strong Catholics! This is our future, the Catholics we are all called to be. These are not the statistics that I have been reading about for the past 20 years. These young people were not dis-interested in their faith. They were not ignorant. They were not bored. They were not absent. Here they were: faith-filled young people, and their parents not far away. No, the word “hope” doesn’t fit anymore.

When I think of hope, I think of something we’re desperate for, something that is still beyond our reach. That’s not how I feel now. Like hoping for Santa to bring world peace, hope tends to be just a wish at times, without any real effort required on our part. If hope is dreaming for a possible, though distant future, than hope may no longer be the right word. I do not have hope in our church. Today, I have CONFIDENCE!

Feyen is the director of adolescent faith formation for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

PHOTO: Father Aaron Junge speaks to young Catholics at the latest Archdiocesan Youth Jam in Waterloo. (contributed photo)