Monday, January 8, 2018

The iGeneration Catholic: Humility and Hope

Baptism of the Lord
I remember when I was first ordained and would preach about Confession, I'd get those looks that said, "Is this guy for real? Everybody knows that Confession went out with Vatican II."  Thankfully, St. John Paul's influence renewed many places in the Church's life. Wherever parishes and communities welcomed the New Evangelization, a resurgence of Sacramental Confession has always followed. I think one important sign of the spiritual health of a Catholic community is the number and quality of the confessions that are heard. If there are few confessions being heard in a particular parish or community, there's a good chance that the spiritual life of that community is weak.

For the past five years, I've been assigned to work with university students at the Catholic Center at Boston University. These young people--mostly born between 1995 and 2001--are part of what some refer to as the "iGeneration." I'm not particularly skilled at understanding trends, demographic charts, and the like. Some people can look at a chart and immediately know what it means. For me, I need time. I need to experience the people represented by the chart. I need to listen to them, engage with them, and live with them. It's just my way of learning.

After five years of spending almost every day surrounded by Catholic members of the iGeneration, one thing about them definitely stands out to me: their ability to confess with total honesty and sincerity. It really is striking. I've spoken to other priests who have confirmed my experience. So often, people in their 30's and older come to confession and try to make themselves sound good. It might well be because we were not well-catechized on how to confess and how to examine our life. People my age often had no real sense of the seriousness of sin, and thus could not really appreciate the extraordinary grace that was offered in the Sacrament of Penance.  But, what I find among the Catholics of the iGeneration is a profound honesty before the Lord.

As a confessor, I am often struck by the humility and total transparency with which these young men and women confess.  I want to provide some examples--just to give a sense of what I mean. The following examples, however, are not from actual confessions but are rather the "type" of thing that I am talking about.  I'd like to offer these example in comparison to what a priest might typically hear in confession.

A typical confession: "Father, I suppose I don't go to Mass as often as I probably should."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear, "Father, I missed Mass on two Sundays. I told myself that I had so much work to do, but I knew that I was lying to myself. This also showed me that I sometimes put so many other things before God. I don't love Him above everything else. Instead, I love my free time more. And I'm really sorry for that and want to change that."

A typical confession: "Father, I probably could be kinder to people."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, sometimes I really use people to get my own way. And, I do it in a way that they don't even know I'm using them. When I do that, I realize that I think that I'm better or more important than other people, and I'm really not. It's a really dishonest way to live, and I don't want to be a dishonest person."

A typical confession might exclude any reference to sexual sins or speak about them in vague generalities.  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, I struggle with pornography and masturbation. Also, I've disrespected women by purposefully putting ourselves in situations where we could have sinned. In this way, I was not loving them, God, or myself. Even though nothing happened, I was kind of hoping that it would. I was using them, and using people really is horrible."

These made-up examples, I hope, convey what I'm talking about. There is a great openness among young people and a great depth to their self-examination. This, at least, is my experience. Perhaps it has to do with a greater intentionality to living the Faith. In other words, many of them no longer live with any sort of cultural or familial expectation that they will practice the Faith. So, if they are going to live the Catholic Faith, they aren't going to do it in some half-hearted way. They're not living the Catholic Faith as a mere "going through the motions." If they're going to do it, it's because they are serious about it.  I'd say, that this is even true of the young people who might not be as active in living the Faith. There is something refreshingly honest about their confessions.  When an iGeneration Catholic comes to Confession, you get the sense that they are thinking, "Well, I'm not going waste my time doing this unless I am totally honest." 

I suspect that this quality is not something that is limited to active Catholics of the iGeneration. I think this particular generation has a greater freedom in expressing themselves honestly, and that they are, in fact, very open to a relationship with God. For many of them, they've been provided limited or no spiritual formation, but they are not closed to it. Their humility is evident in their honest self-examination . And, humility is fertile ground for the Gospel! They are also very open to the witness of their peers who are active in living the Catholic Faith. I am always deeply moved by students who tell me that the reason they are living the Catholic Faith is because they were moved by the witness of one of their fellow students. iGeneration might not be raised in a culture friendly to Christianity, but they are open, willing to be convinced, and humble.

I often go to a local shrine for Confession. I like being in the line with all of the other sinners. (Well, I like it as long as I'm towards the front of the line). There's something great about all of us being there together.  I am writing this post on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On this day, Jesus did something pretty awesome.  He went down to the Jordan River and got into line with all of the sinners.  Yes, he was without sin, but he came to be close to us. He is not afraid to get in line with the sinners. It's so awesome, isn't it? Not only did Jesus take on human nature in the Incarnation, so that He could be close to us, but He even humbled Himself to get into line with all of the sinners.  If He who was without sin is willing to humble Himself and to get into line with all who have sinned, then we who are sinners should all the more be willing to humble ourselves and to join the line of repentant sinners.

Scholars will study the iGeneration and it's religious and spiritual opinions. I am only speaking from my very limited experience of five years of college ministry. From that limited experience, however, I hold out a lot of hope. The iGeneration, I think, is not too proud to get into line and admit their imperfections, their emptiness, their sins, and their desire for something more. When they humbly get into that line, Jesus is always standing there with them. And, wherever Jesus is, there is always hope.

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