Love Letter

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

In the ’60s, baseball sat on its ass and said, ‘We’re the national pastime. Come see us.’ So what happens? Attendance dwindles and the ’70s become a hotbed for NFL football. No one bothered to call attention to baseball. We still had the older generation. They’d come forever. But we’d lost the younger generation, who didn’t remember this was the national pastime. They had a lot of other ways to spend their time. — El Paso Diablos owner Jim Paul, 1989, in Stolen Season by David Lamb


I’m thinking about that July day when you and I drove hours downstate to take the admissions tour at the state university. We spent a wet, squally day doing what 2.5 million of your peers did with their parents at some point last year: We roamed the grounds of a prospective school, heard the spiel, asked questions, sized up residence halls, tried the food.


As the evening dried out, we walked into town for dinner, then made our way back to the car.  


“We have one more stop before heading home,” I said. I knew the eye-roll was coming. “I want to see the Newman Center.”


Now, I’m aware that most Catholic freshmen at said state university won’t even think about walking to the parish church where the Catholic students gather for Mass and small groups and service activities — not all the way from the residence halls, they won’t. Hell, you’d need a car. The church is twice as far away as all those great restaurants and bars, and you’d have to roll past a dozen fraternity houses to get there — like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress skirting the Slough of Despond on the road to Vanity Fair. Doubt, distraction and admittedly alluring crapola aplenty. More earthly delights than you’d know what to do with, really.


No, a freshman would have to go out of his way to reach the Celestial City of that off-campus parish, and then only because he wanted to. And I suppose, now that the days before you leave home are dwindling, that’s my question:


Do you?


Because most of your peers don’t. In August, you’ll turn 18. You’ll become what sociologists call an “emerging adult” — and emerging adults, Catholics right alongside everyone else, are leaving their churches in thundering herds, with no evidence that they’re ever coming back.


Now it would seem that for all our intentionality and modeling and judicious restraint, we’re still walking a razor line between scarring the eight of you through force-fed religiosity and setting you adrift on the calm, tepid seas of spiritual indifference.


Here’s a set of statistics I learned from my friend in Notre Dame’s Office of Mission Engagement and Church Affairs. Back in 1986, when I’m 13 and going to Mass every Sunday with your grandmother, the percentage of twentysomethings who tell pollsters that organized religion isn’t for them stands at 10. Twenty years later, when you’re 6 and we’re going to church at least once a week and saying grace at dinner each night, that needle has jumped to 23 percent. But your mom and I feel convicted, and you’re little, and we’re hopeful you’re coming to know and love God as we do.


But our red flag should’ve shot up. Fast-forward another decade to 2016, and you’re shaving. You’ve aged out of parish-based religious education and we’re weighing how hard to push your small-group Bible study. Meanwhile, that departure ticker has now hit 39 percent, and the exodus looks like a walls-blown-out jailbreak, with no sign of slowing down.


I admit this shocks me — but I shouldn’t be shocked. I grew up a public-school kid in the 1980s, convinced by my sophomore year that I was destined to be The Last Catholic on Earth. Religion was not cool at my suburban high school (except when caricatured in Madonna’s music videos), and I was known to no small number of my classmates as Father Nagy, the guy willing to let enough of his religious conviction show to confirm for who knows how many others that this was not a great idea — if you wanted to fit in.


So I am accustomed to being a lone rider. But for the last 18 years I’ve been so focused on trying to raise you and your seven brothers and sisters that I’d lost the big picture.


What’s changed? By outward appearances, nothing. You have good friends at your public high school. They’re amiable kids who respect their parents, show up on time, seem curious about what’s going on in the world and care about people in need. Religion just doesn’t preoccupy them. So this winter, while watching your little brother’s Saturday morning soccer workouts, I scoured Christian Smith’s latest findings, looking for answers. In Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, the Notre Dame sociologist and his colleagues in the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a longitudinal research project now deep into its second decade, confirm that young Catholics are less likely now to attend weekly Mass than when I was your age. More than half do not. About 60 percent acknowledge that their Catholicism is “not very strong.”


Here’s the core of Smith’s findings: The religious identity that young Catholics establish as children living in their parents’ homes is probably what they’ll carry with them through life. One’s faith practices remain stable from childhood into adulthood. Less frequently, they decline. Late bloomers are a rare third, religiously speaking. The point is that most Catholic kids aren’t going to Mass now and they won’t start when they’re older.


Interesting, though, is what your generation hasn’t lost. Other studies of trends in American religion have found that, churchgoing aside, people your age retain their wonder, their spiritual wellbeing, their belief that life has meaning and purpose — at levels indistinguishable from their parents and grandparents. Smith disagrees with some of that but notes that you all are slightly more likely to pray daily, to believe in an afterlife, to affirm the Bible’s sacred character. That doesn’t mean you’re reading it, or getting to know the God who is revealed in it. Which means your friends are less and less inclined to talk about religion, the sacred, the eternal — or even life’s purpose — in articulate and meaningful ways.


That to me suggests we’re losing something essential to what it means to be human — and that’s why I worry. Bishop Robert Barron, the charismatic “hero of the New Evangelization” whose excellent, 10-part documentary Catholicism we tried watching together a few years ago, cautions that religion withers in isolation, but thrives in dialogue and friendship. You know, the vine and the branches. But those conversations aren’t happening much among your peers. And, although Smith’s team finds that close relationships with elders are the most powerful influence shaping the religious lives of young adults, too often the interactions between people your age and mine don’t get very far.


Barron quoted from Smith’s research at length while making this point during his packed-house lecture on campus back in March. He cited the example of “Joe,” one of the young men in the NSYR interview pool, who “identifies as an agnostic [and] admitted that he prays occasionally, but [is] not at all sure to whom the prayer is directed.” In Joe’s words, the alternatives are “Maybe the Universe? Maybe the big white man with the bushy beard?” Which, Barron points out, is “either the crudest form of pantheism, or the most naïve type of anthropomorphism.”


The prelate’s point is that it does not seem to occur to Joe “that there’s a rationally compelling Biblical alternative to these options.” As a theologian long engaged with young people and the search for God in the popular culture, Barron says he’d almost prefer a “robust atheism. At least it would give us a little more traction for constructive conversation.”


But are we — parents, grandparents, godparents, all charged at baptism with handing on the faith — too late to share it, to present that compelling Biblical alternative? Smith’s team found that “a majority of all types of Catholic emerging adults believes it is acceptable to pick and choose religious beliefs without affirming the teachings of a religious faith as a whole.” If that’s true, then it seems to me that one of the Church’s great strengths — the time-tested coherence of its doctrines that explain who God is and who we are, and of its teachings on everything from sexual morality to our obligations to the unborn, the sick, the elderly, the immigrant, the marginalized, the poor — may be lost forever. And lost not because the coherence is gone, but because fewer and fewer Catholics are paying attention.


We’re losing each generation younger. Another recent study, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, pinpoints the median age of departure at 13. Researchers identified three overlapping groups of ex-Catholics. The “injured” are those who leave because of some negative experience with faith, such as a divorce or a death, or the feeling of being forced to go to Mass or offering prayers that went unanswered. “Drifters” depart because of their own uncertainty, a lack of connection with other Catholics, or an experience of family going through the motions. “Dissenters” drop out because they can no longer countenance Church teachings on social issues from same-sex marriage to birth control, or fundamental doctrines from creation to redemption to life after death.


Maybe Nietzsche, the German nihilist, was right: Modern Christians don’t really believe in God. If we did, we’d act different from everyone else. We’d look different. Our principles would come at a cost to our lives, tastes and comfort.


I have to say, this summary doesn’t help me as a father. Your mother and I have baptized eight of you, prepared six children for confessions and first Communions and seen two of you confirmed in the Holy Spirit. We sing the Salve Regina in ordinary time and carol at Christmastime, but haven’t pushed the rosary. Now it would seem that for all our intentionality and modeling and judicious restraint, we’re still walking a razor line between scarring the eight of you through force-fed religiosity and setting you adrift on the calm, tepid seas of spiritual indifference.


As for dissent? I don’t know what to make of it. Though Smith’s numbers don’t show it, there must be those who jump ship because they’re disgusted with the sex abuse scandals or disapprove of the Church’s moral positions. By that argument, though, I’d expect the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Unitarians to be flourishing. But they’re not.


Smith’s emphasis on relationship rings true. His team profiles seismic shifts in American culture that since the 1940s have shaped emerging adulthood as a distinctive life phase, and suggests that these changes, some of which we’d regard as healthy and constructive, have nonetheless deafened us to the needs of our souls.


To sum up: You and your peers are more disposed than my generation to get a college and graduate-school education, to delay or discount marriage, to change jobs as often as you need to fortify your prospects, to seek parental financial support later in life, to think about sex as primarily a recreational activity without long-term personal or social significance, to accept postmodern ideas that diminish or deny truth and reason, and to expect a comfortable future as the due reward for your efforts.


What religion has to say about any of this — about the goodness of marriage, of locational stability, of sex as a gift with implications beyond the bedroom, of the unity of truth, of self-mastery — has faded into the thrum. In the meantime, while the “Catholic” population continues to dominate the religious landscape of the United States — 68.5 million American Catholics accounted for 21 percent of the population in 2017 — nearly every major indicator of Catholic religious participation, apart from those pocket communities where they remain strong, is in free fall. Parish and school closures and the collapse of vocations and the religious life are old news. But what about baptism, that hope-filled sacrament, often performed at the most joyful time in a parent’s life? The Church baptized 1.3 million babies in 1965 and half that number in 2017. Annual numbers of Confirmations, first Communions, marriages and even Catholic funerals are all far below the historic highs that most sacraments and rites reached around the year 2000.


Sure, we’re having fewer children now than we did during the Baby Boom, so you’d expect contraction. But funerals? If I had to put a word on what’s going on here, it’s complacency.


None of this, by the way, is your fault. Young people are neither the problem, nor its cause. If your generation is dropping out, it’s only because mine dropped out before you, as our parents’ did before us. “Just when the Church and its faithful needed to create new means of propagating the faith better fitted to the circumstances of the late 20th century,” Smith concludes, “the most important means by which any religion is transmitted to new generations — the investment, modeling, and instruction of parents — was weakened by uncertainty, distraction, and incapacitation.”


True, I think. But incomplete.


In my experience, plenty of parents are trying. But the ground beneath us is collapsing. And here’s the bad news. Your generation is missing out. We all are.


See, none of this would matter, and I wouldn’t waste your time bringing it up, but for one thing: I believe everything we’ve taught you.


I believe in the God who became man and who died for me and my sins, who gave us a Church as a sacrament of his solidarity with us, and of ours with each other, who sent his Holy Spirit among us to fashion us into torches for spreading the fire of his love. I’ll spare you the recitation of the Nicene Creed that’s welling up within me, but I will say that it appears that for many of us, the fire’s gone cold.


Why? As my philosopher friend suggests, all those distractions Smith & Co. outlined in Young Catholic America haven’t lured us away. We’ve gone looking for them. It’s avoidance behavior. We consume ourselves with distractions because we’re afraid that if we open ourselves to the requirements of Love, to the glaring need for love all around us, it will consume us.


It’s simply easier to immerse ourselves in life and all its fun, competing, genuine goods — binge-watching Parks and Rec, extending your Snapstreaks, playing soccer on a Sunday morning — than to go to Mass, pray a rosary or make the kind of personal sacrifices that authentic Christian love requires. All that feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, changing the diapered. It’s labor-intensive. Time-consuming.


The philosopher says Nietzsche, the German nihilist, was right: Modern Christians don’t really believe in God. If we did, we’d act different from everyone else. We’d look different. Our principles would come at a cost to our lives, tastes and comfort. True generosity, St. Ignatius of Loyola prayed, means learning “to give and not to count the cost.” But as theologian Leonard DeLorenzo, whom you know as the director of the Notre Dame Vision program, writes in What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life’s Big Decisions, most of us aren’t ready for that. We need to acknowledge those costs. Otherwise, we’ll resent them.


But what do you think? When we believe what we say we do, shouldn’t that look different?


And isn’t it ironic that just at the moment in the 1960s when Vatican II definitively proclaimed the Church as the People of God — and not as the ordained priesthood or the hierarchy, much less as the Vatican itself, or as church buildings or as anything else — the People of God stood up from the pews and made for the doors? As if we couldn’t remember why the Mass, confession, grace, sacrifice, mercy, love returned for Love, the effort of it all, was worth our time. And lo, there was the world, full of more entertaining, more important things to do.


Startled at first, the children followed their parents and walked out, too.


Scattered. Like sheep without a shepherd.


I’m not saying we the people should go back to that older, clerical understanding of Church. I’m saying we need to recognize and own what we’re doing. I’m saying if we really believe in God we should live that faith with integrity. And, if we’re not sure, maybe we’d better be.


Look, I don’t want to imply anything. We’ve talked, but I really don’t know your mind on this subject. And I wonder: Did we give you everything we could have — all the bedtime prayers and blessings; the VeggieTales videos; your years in Montessori-based religious education, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd; our scriptural meditations around your mother’s homemade Jesse Tree; the furtive attempts to teach you the Liturgy of the Hours or to get you to read Lewis and Chesterton? Did we push too much? Or expect too little? Raising eight kids as we’ve felt called to do is a daily exercise in humility and stretching past limits. Do we practice our faith with enough joy?


Then again, my worries may be groundless angsting. Maybe you’re fine, and you just want the chance to make this your own thing without me grunting at you to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Maybe you’re like that Trappist monk whom William Least Heat-Moon met while he was out driving America’s blue highways. “Talking about the spiritual life is a lot of crap,” the cowled former Wall Street trader told the wandering writer. “You just live it.”


Your misfortune is that I side with Bishop Barron over Brother Pius on the matter of talking religion. So if you’ve got a few more minutes, I’d like one more time to share with you why I’m Catholic, why I’ve raised you Catholic, why this is so important to me. And why I think blaming parents, while warranted, is only part of the story.


I haven’t forgotten that faith is a gift. Quite the contrary, I believe I’m living proof of it.


If I were an aggregate of all that NSYR data that Smith’s team compiled, I’d have left the Church more than 30 years ago. My mother was Catholic. Dad was unchurched. He’d make sure we got out the door on time and didn’t wear jeans to Mass, then he’d start on brunch so it was ready when we got home. You’re not supposed to find Catholics like me with this background. “In most cases,” I read in Young Catholic America, “having a committed father seems to be a necessary condition” for producing children who will become committed Catholics.


Further, I knew nothing of those “concentric circles of belonging” that Ken Woodward, George Weigel and others write about. If I had an ethnicity, it would be American Suburban. Were there other Catholics up and down the block? Maybe. But in our home, there were no heirloom images of Our Lady of Guadalupe or family-recipe stelline d’oro cookies at Christmastime, those things that for centuries had woven together the threads of language, art, food and devotion to create the fabric of common religious identity among families that makes for a spiritually rich human community. I haven’t the first clue what the old-school Dutch Catholicism of my great-grandmother’s childhood looks, tastes, sounds or smells like.


And isn’t it ironic that just at the moment in the 1960s when Vatican II definitively proclaimed the Church as the People of God — and not as the ordained priesthood or the hierarchy, much less as the Vatican itself, or as church buildings or as anything else — the People of God stood up from the pews and made for the doors?


Apart from Mass, we didn’t do those things that I imagine Catholic families do. I spent more time playing soccer and Dungeons & Dragons, listening to Men At Work, watching TV for hours before starting my homework, than doing anything discernibly Catholic. Mom was practicing her own faith with humbling constancy and tenderness and reading religious books with a seeker’s heart, teaching in a Catholic grade school so my brother and I could go there for a few years before better professional opportunities came her way. But my ties were thin. I could have gone the way of disinterest, like my brother did, but for some reason, I didn’t. Dutiful by nature, devoted to my mother, I sensed that there was something important, massive, ancient and ageless here. I understood that if I wanted to know God, it would demand essential things from me. I knew, too, that if I was going to rebel against it, reject it and leave, I wanted to know what I was rebelling against.


But I wasn’t going to be a hermit. I needed relationship. I needed a community. Failing to find it in my high school, or my neighborhood, and just at that age when many young Catholics drop out, I encountered someone who could help.


You’ve met Eduardo Azcarate. He was younger then than I am now, a married father of four, a child psychologist by profession. “Doc” grew up in the Jesuits’ sodalities in Havana in the 1950s — small prayer groups of service and devotion to Mary and the Eucharist. An only child, he always said he wanted brothers, and so in exile in suburban Virginia he created “Catholic Life Communities” for high-school students, small, parish-based brotherhoods and sisterhoods where he and his fellow Youth Apostles modeled for us how to practice a simple Catholic faith of our own, building on what we’d received from our parents. Through regular meetings, good talks and increasingly challenging levels of commitment, we developed the practices of weekday Mass, monthly confession, Marian prayer and a refusal to criticize the Church without first trying to understand it. We learned that to be Catholic meant to understand that human beings can only love other human beings because God loves us first. All of us. Everybody. Even people who don’t believe in God.


We learned as well that to be Catholic meant a calling to be God’s head, heart and hands in the world — that grace builds on nature and insists on our cooperation to do its work.


Of course, this was the ideal, the way it was supposed to be, assuming we showed up and weren’t jacking around like the normal teenagers we were. A lot of kids tried it for a while and left. Those of us who stuck around screwed up all the time. Our struggles ranged from vanity and selfishness, from disobedience and deep-seated anger issues to drinking, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity. The holiness only went so far, which was why we needed community — brothers and sisters for the journey — to help us be human and follow Christ. What mattered was never giving up on the goal, or on each other.


In retrospect I realize that what Eduardo did in founding CLC and Youth Apostles was to reclaim something he’d lost when he left Cuba — the same thing we all lost when our forebears left their ancestral homes and came to America, or fled their urban enclaves for the suburbs. Eduardo envisioned a community: a common life among priests and laypeople, women and men, young and old, who shared in the work of sharing their faith, more intentionally than among Catholics long ago — an immersion in a joyful, nonjudgmental, reverent Catholicism. That experience of community meant everything to me.


Today I’m Catholic for reasons that others might not accept or understand. I started making a list the other night after you’d gone to bed and stopped after 24 because the aphorisms were turning into treatises. But here are a handful:


1. I’m Catholic because Catholicism sees victory in ordinary goodness. You don’t need to save the world. You can simply put others first and respond to the needs of the moment and the people around you.


2. I’m Catholic because Catholicism recognizes that the city of God and the city of man dwell in everyone, that we are all beautiful and broken, all on the same side in this earthbound struggle to put God above the self, rather than the self above God. We have all seen faces of evil, but we must not forget that our fellow human beings are not the enemy.


3. I’m Catholic because I have grounded my spirituality in Mary’s pondering, her example of sifting and enriching the joys and sorrows of her life through prayer. (This reminds me to take my earbuds out from time to time. But while I have them in, I ponder whether God is the diffident, pathetic God of Vampire Weekend’s “Ya Hey” or the laconic, omnipotent and fiercely ever-loving God of Sufjan Stevens’ “Seven Swans.”)


4. I’m Catholic because a genuine Catholicism stands for the dignity of every human life: unborn and born; old and young; liberal or conservative, wealthy or poor; the citizen, the immigrant; gay and straight; the sick, the healthy, the able and disabled; those guilty before the law, as well as those who are innocent. And because the Church I love, and yet which makes its adherents, I hope, a little uncomfortable, must be the Church God intended for us. I choose to be part of that.


5. I’m Catholic because of the Eucharist, because it’s available every day, and because I love Flannery O’Connor, who famously said that “if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”


6. And I’m Catholic because in John 6, a chapter of peculiar interest to Catholics, I read Christ’s promise that he will not reject anyone who comes to him, as well as his reassurance to us of his Father’s will, “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” God is the Hound of Heaven. As Stevens sings, “If you run, / He will chase you. / He is the Lord.”


You know we love you. What we want is for you to know you are beloved by God.


If we failed to give you a coherent experience of Catholic community growing up, you are going to a college that makes it available. You are going to Notre Dame. This opportunity, and your choice to take it, came as a great joy to your mother and me. It’s a much shorter walk to your rector’s door, the chapel, the basilica, the Grotto, the company of Catholic peers, than you’d have needed to find the spiritual resources of other schools. But to benefit from this community, you will have to seek it out all the same.


John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.