By Sue Stanton
AMES — The second lecture of the Monsignor James A. Supple Catholic Studies Series was given by Father Robin Ryan, professor at the Catholic Theological Church in Chicago and founder of Catholic on Call, on Oct. 20 at Saint Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center at Iowa State University in Ames.
Speaking to a crowd of 50, his topic was “Catholics at the Crossroads: Why Catholics Leave the Church and What Can Be Done About It.” Father Ryan began his talk saying, “We may need to have an anti-depressant to listen to what I’m about to say,” and went on to speak about recent studies from a number of sources, both Catholic and secular, that show a rapid and dramatic decline in the number of Catholics in the country.
The challenge of reaching the age group known as the “nones” that cover the ages 18-23 has proven especially challenging. Dwelling in a society so different since 9/11 and the world their families were raised in has led to a group who are “spiritual tinkers” that take spiritual concepts from several religions as they attempt to form their own ideas.
“There are so many cultural factors today,” Father Ryan says, “and we learn by osmosis. This is why the nones are drawn to the structures of prayer, the rosary and the sacraments mainly the Eucharist. Many have not had a Catholic education where you had religion at nine o’clock and biology at 10. This kind of education gives the message that there is no conflict between faith and science. But if you don’t learn the two together, you think there is a conflict between them.”
Such a grim picture is not new in the public eye. Analysis on Catholic life, both those leaving the church and those staying behind, has been covered and researched for decades.
The studies Father Ryan cited gave recent findings concerning many different age groups of people expressing religious lives and those who remain quietly in the background. Drilling down more deeply into the stats are Catholics who have left the church in anger or who have left for other more meaningful religious experiences for themselves.
However, the church’s response over the last 50 years has presented a more fractured picture of religious educational efforts, the decline of priests and sisters in teaching roles in parochial schools and large shifts in thought throughout society with accompanying cultural changes. In short, the challenges placed before the church are not simple ones that have simple answers.
“We must let go of the church of the 1950s,” he said. “That was the glory days of Catholicism with the Knights of Columbus and use of the rosary. There are now opposing tendencies that we see. One that is a progressive perspective and the other being a traditional/conservative perspective. I believe there is plenty of room in between. Plenty of room for the truth and I believe there is truth in both of these perspectives. There are no simple answers unfortunately.”
Though Ryan’s talk was sobering, it also proved insightful concerning Catholic evangelization. “People need to know what we believe,” he said, “but we need a healthy balance between the ‘anything goes’ and one that says everything the church thinks and does is unchangeable. Our truths are in the Nicene Creed and can always be expressed better for any given age. The vision of the church that Pope Francis provides gives us clues as to how the church is to move forward. Our ministers and priests need to walk the journey with people today. All of us need to help young people discern what God is asking in their lives.”
“The apologetic approach is popular today but doesn’t convince many people. We have to live our faith, reflect it to others and let them know just how important it is in our lives.”
Father Ryan cited Pope Francis and his pastoral approach to young people as a good mentor for them in sharing and living the life of the Catholic Church with joy.
Father Ryan concluded by asking people to do three things within their own parishes and families as they reach out to young adults—listen to them, invite them into your lives for mentoring and encourage them in their own life and career choices.
“Parishes need to ask young adults to contribute their gifts through personal invitations and go the extra mile for the church to feel and be their home.”
Father Robin Ryan speaking in Ames on Oct. 20. (Photo by Sue Stanton)