We are now coming to the end of the spring semester within the University. For all colleges this time of the year is a wonderful opportunity to recall moments of joy, sorrow, achievements or failure. Whatever the case, it is a season of hope.
The graduates prepare for the next phase of their lives and beginnings of a career. The underclassmen are preparing for summer activities and employment. Yet for all students, it is a time to reflect, formally or informally, on the year and the changes or growth in their lives. Critical thinking, an important element in our core curriculum, does have its place in this year-end transition.
Today, in my last two classes of the Catholic intellectual tradition seminar, students were asked to choose three readings from the semester and reflect on the impact in their lives. I was amazed at the depth of their reflections on personal development, morals and faith. I have borrowed the name of a study by St Mary’s Press for this refection, since it captures the present state of our young adults.
During the semesters, readings ranged from Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, Frankel, Dorothy Day, Theresa and Pope Francis. From the readings, the students were challenged to discover more about themselves and their journey.
This discussion caused me serious issue for reflection. While one student professed to be deep into the sciences and abandoned the notion of God, another was coping with the notion of justice. Yet another could not reconcile suffering in a world with God.
The depth of their reflections was awakening. Their comments were filled, for the most part, with their testimony of faith and their struggles with that at times. The awakening, for me, was their indifference to the institutional church. This common thread was rooted, as they see it, in the hypocrisy and the rigidity of the institution. Yet, for many, there was a fondness for individual priests who had crossed their paths.
Leaving the class, it struck me that the formulaic services and the lack of inclusiveness have alienated this generation. The “who made you?” catechism style has absolutely no relevance and is insulting to these students’ intellectual capacities.
In a study conducted by St. Mary’s Press, they write that “disaffiliation from the Church is largely a thoughtful, conscious, intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practices are seen as one option among many.” Listening to our class discussion, I could not help but think that this disaffiliation is the making of our own institutional church. These students are honestly groping with faith on their personal journey. They are not groping with a series of catechism questions. They are motivated by the works and writings of Merton, Day, Theresa of Calcutta. So, they are struggling to understand how these remarkable witnesses they have discovered on their journey relate to an institution and many of its leaders who are far from inclusive and seem to enjoy being judgmental.
I certainly do not have the answers, but I do realize that pious pontificating pomposity will not be part of these students’ faith journey. Ministers and leaders, if they are sincere in their faith, will have to answer for their part in this alienation. Maybe rereading the gospels can help each of us recall and understand how Jesus treated and respected the alienated. Clearly, as I have experienced, our students understand and appreciate notions of inclusiveness, respect and faith as critical to their journey. Walking with them gives me hope that belief in God will flourish.
John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.