Faith reduced to sentiment putting young people off

Young people want to be treated as intelligent figures

Whenever I speak to parish groups around the country the issue of passing on the Faith to younger generations always arises. There is general anxiety around it, particularly from parents and grandparents who see their children unmoved by the Faith.

How can this be? How can it come about that, despite the vast network of Catholic schools, most young people find themselves unengaged by the Faith? Most Irish young adults spend around 14 years in Catholic education and yet have little knowledge or understanding of the Faith. What are we doing wrong?

I think there is a fundamental problem in the way we try to engage with young people. Teenagers and young adults today are supremely well-educated. They also have access to infinite knowledge and information via the internet. Never before in the history of humanity has so much knowledge been so widely available. Is the Church keeping apace? Hardly


The problem is that too many people in religious education don’t take religion seriously. Young people in school are constantly challenged and have their minds expanded. Whether it’s mathematics, or science or history young people are used to being pushed to excel. But, when they come to religion class are they challenged or are they simply reduced to watching videos or handed colouring-in books?

It’s as if many people involved in religious education have lost their confidence in the Faith. They themselves do not know the answers to some of life’s deepest questions so they assume the Faith doesn’t have the answers. In this context Catholicism is too easily reduced to mere sentimentality: a comfort blanket for the lonely and nice stories for children.

If teenagers and young adults, when faced with deep questions like ‘who am I?’ or ‘what is life for?’, hear only twee sentimentality and inadequate platitudes from the Church is it any wonder they walk away?

Sentimentality and a ‘feel good factor’ will sustain people for a while, but when the big questions arise, faith built on sentiment and feelings falls like a house of cards.

Dumbing down

Catholicism is a radical call, it is about discipleship. But when asked to describe it to young people we too often fall back on pious clichés like “it’s about being nice to people!” If that’s all there is to Catholicism, it’s no surprise that young people take a brief look then walk on.

There is nothing specifically Catholic or Christian about being nice to people. It’s a human thing rather than a religious thing.

We too often fall in to the trap of dumbing down the faith. And a dumbed-down faith, particularly at a time when young people are better educated than they have ever been, is a disaster. It looks pathetic.

And when young people experience a dumbed down faith they think the Faith is stupid, that it is not capable of answering life’s deeper questions.

Life is complex, complex as never before. Young people are constantly faced with issues and challenges that those of an older generation couldn’t have imagined. But, the faith can meet these challenges.

Our Catholic tradition can rise to the encounter and engage young people with the deepest questions of life. However, it can only do this if it is presented in an intelligent and coherent way. Young adults and teenagers don’t want balloons and markers when they come to Church.


They don’t want cringe-inducing liturgies with music or drama sketches that seemed edgy decades ago. Young people want to be treated as they are: intelligent young adults faced with complex realities and with difficult questions to ask. To be welcomed as seekers on a journey, doubters aspiring to faith.

If we as a believing community can’t rise to this, young people will continue to look elsewhere.