I recently read a story in St Anthony Press about a group of young people called Focus. The recent college graduates go back to universities and try to bring the Catholic faith to the students there. This article applauded their work, and I’m sure there have been some great gains through their efforts, but I was totally disturbed.
The decade between 16 and 26 years old is a critical time in life. Even one of the group members said, “Young people are making life decisions and values are tested. They decide whether to reject or accept Catholicism”. We sure do. I do not deny the truth of that. But while they see that as a perfect time to intervene, I’d be more careful. I do not think people make a true embrace of Catholicism, or anything, at this stage without the possible negative influences of identity forming and conforming. Their focus (no pun intended) seemed to be on getting kids in right relationship with the Church, not necessarily God. And although we want to avoid an individualistic type of religiosity, group think isn’t a great way to go either (not that I think that Focus is doing that).
I joined a charismatic Catholic teen group in my first year of college. I was very taken up with it all, a little too much. When I look at that time now as a professional minister I realize that the 9 months in that group had all of the tell tale signs of a late adolescent stage- when we are furtively trying to find, form and express our identity. What normally sticks out then are identities of a unique or unusual fashion. We are prone to conformity and still attracted to black and white thinking, especially as we encounter big changes in our world views. We want to belong, be cool, be included, we want acceptance but acceptance from others is a poor substitute for the self acceptance we really crave. We go to the parades, walks, protests, lectures, etc. especially in the beginning, often for our own sense of self.
In this stage we are libel to cling to many things/people for identity, not because we are embracing this or that, but for the secure feelings it gives us. This stage of identity forming is a dangerous place to wield so much influence. I remember my mom getting upset once when we came home from CCD with ‘little feet’ pins (representing anti-abortion) that our teacher sold us. When my mom asked what the pin was for, we didn’t know; we just thought the feet were cute. My mom questioned our teacher about it and the teacher said something to the affect of, ‘Well, this is when we have to get them, when they’re young and we can mold them without them even knowing it’. My mom told her that was akin to brainwashing and unacceptable. And I agree with her point-she said it was unfair to lure kids into something they don’t understand.
College students are not children but it is so important to remember the capacity for persuasion, for good and bad, at this time. I would be uncomfortable having so much influence without some good theological training too. I’ve not read any other articles or information on this group but I do think from what was said in it that they mistakenly think people are open and hungry for God when they may be soley open and hungry for identity. If I were in this group, I wouldn’t want anyone to ‘come to truth’ without truly wanting to and being of clear mind to do so. It wouldn’t seem authentic any other way.