Photos and text by Fernando Ontiveros Llamas
The darkest hour
As a practicing catholic teaching Biology at a supposedly Catholic college in the US, I should be telling you sad stories. This would be no news to anyone in these parts: Since the early seventies (and I will leave the details for another day) most catholic universities here stopped being run by religious congregations and surrendered their decision-making to lay boards. That structural change, and the gradual but continuous decline in religious vocations—thus fewer priests, brothers, and sisters in the classroom—resulted in the watering-down of the principles by which a catholic college is supposed to operate. As I said, that is a sad story but I am not going to talk about that here, maybe next time. The story I bring to you today, at the threshold of Advent, is one of hope:
There is an English proverb that goes something like “the darkest hour is just before dawn”, so I will tell you another sad story before I get to my point:
At least in the US, young people are leaving the Catholic Church in large numbers. Most polls show that at least 30% of young people have joined the “Nones”, or non-religiously affiliated. Not quite like the “Ninis”, I hear about south of the border, but I bet you they would overlap to a good extent.
This does not surprise me, because I deal with young people every day. Faculty everywhere will tell you that today (perhaps always, I do not know) most students give very little thought to their “convictions”. They are pretty confident about the “values” of equality, tolerance, and freedom of choice but upon further inspection, one finds that they cannot defend any of these positions reasonably. One also suspects that this tends to be the result of having never defended any conviction or belief in a serious discussion. Not even those “values” or beliefs that were (poorly) taught to them while growing up. So they mostly default to beliefs and positions that are mainstream, that are considered “educated” and that are to be spoused by anyone that considers themselves a “good person”. Never mind whether those values or beliefs actually make any real sense, build a coherent system, or are useful as a guide through complicated issues and hard decisions in our life.
Faith in hard ground
My story, or rather stories of hope are situated right in the middle of this intellectual, ethical, and societal environment:
There is Mary Grace, a Biology student that just came back from Houston where she volunteered as a paramedic for the last month or so to help at hospitals overwhelmed by the pandemic. She attends daily Mass at the college, along with a couple of other students. Recently, in one of her classes, she rebuked a professor that tried to convince the class that gender is fluid.
There is Christopher, who after a year of majoring in the health professions switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies and has just joined the seminary after graduating in May.
There is Maria, and Lucy, and Josiah, who are all part of campus ministry and who like the other two cases above, come from catholic families that are obviously doing something right.
There is a K-12 school nearby that was started almost 10 years ago by the same kind of families with very little resources but a strong desire to offer a Catholic education to their children. That school educates now about 150 children in sound catholic and classical principles. I was there holding the door open for a few of those students coming out of the building one day, and every single one of them (maybe a dozen?) looked at me in the eyes and said “thank you”, one after another. I do not know how it is where you reside, but witnessing a teenager address a grown-up with deference and gratitude around here will make the headlines in a middle-of-the-road newspaper.
Against the grain
These are hopeful stories and what is more, they are only a sample. I know dozens of young and not so young married couples that are choosing to practice their faith and to fill the pews at church with children. And this is not the end of the story, nor the only reason to hope. Here is a less obvious one:
It is no secret that society is going a little crazy. Any divergence from the dictatorship of relativism (as Prof. Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI would put it) is considered as rooted either on religious extremism or on ominous ignorance or both, disregarding your reasons to believe or your actions. But here is a less known and acknowledged fact: Many young people are fed up with that. They see the outrageous nonsense in society (it is all around them, 24/7) and are not buying it.
I am not talking about the Mary Graces and Christophers of the world; I am talking about kids that grew up mildly religious or not at all, kids that are searching: Searching for foundations, searching for beauty and for truth. This is a world that denies them access to any kind of genuine truth by making true anything they want to fancy. Truth has become caprice and when whatever you want to believe is true, then nothing is. And some of my students, like many other young people everywhere, are not buying it anymore.
Our world forgets at times that true beauty is out there, in spite of the suffering. A few years ago Jacob, a recent graduate, traveled to Italy and walked into a cathedral. When he came back he converted to Catholicism. Sheer beauty will do that to you, in this world.
Robert just finished his college career. He graduated with four degrees: Maths, Physics, Philosophy, and Computer Science. He is now doing his Ph.D. in Physics. His family was not particularly religious, but Catholicism made sense to him and he converted in his first year here at St John Fisher College. As I have experienced myself, the marriage of faith and reason is too attractive to reject if you take the time to consider the relation seriously.
I propose that we meet young people with orthodoxy. This is no time for making Catholicism palatable or cool; sweet, and “decaf” according to the sensibilities of the times. We are not just another life-style “feeling-good” group. We are not selling wellness or fun; we are offering comfort in sorrow and a deeper meaning in life. We stand in stark contrast with the values of the “anything goes” culture. Let’s offer our young people something radical, bold, and beautiful; and leave the rest to Hope.