Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

“Jesus must have been a very happy man to be around. He was always attracting children. And children don’t follow a cranky person.”

That was in the early days of my priesthood. I never saw the man again who told me that. He just passed this on to me unexpectedly one morning after a funeral. The wisdom of that gratuitous — even, I might say, graced — advice has never left me.

Today, when so many older Catholics (I include myself) are tempted to bemoan the apparent decline of young people in church gatherings, including Sunday Mass, I find it worthwhile to ask ourselves, “What exactly is it that they would come for? What would attract them?”

The answer should be obvious: Jesus Christ is an enormously attractive presence in Himself. He is and always was a great drawing card.

Not every encounter with Jesus, as the Scriptures tell us, proved to be a productive one — at least, not all at once. I think of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who walked away because he was too attached to his personal wealth. Even Peter needed time to grow in his trust of the Lord, often questioning Jesus and, at the 11th hour, denying Him.

Yet, anyone who allowed Jesus to get into their lives and their deepest dilemmas always found healing and new purpose: the woman at the well, the two men on the road to Emmaus, the man born blind and so many others.

Young people — both teens and young adults — know they need love and support in their lives. They long for good friendships, guidance in finding the right path in life, affirmation of their true identity, which they seek to discover and home in on — and, most importantly, to be involved in activities and ways in which they can feel they are making a difference.

There is no question that music is important to young people. A parish’s commitment to good musical leadership is always a worthwhile investment. Homilies that can help young people make contact with the real Jesus, who loves them, and His Holy Spirit, who teaches and reminds them, are always a great plus.

More than anything else, however, our young people really want to be asked — about their thoughts, their plans, their passions and their practical advice on how to get things done. They love participating in projects. They understand that they are missed in church, but do not want to go and just be told to help hand out some bulletins without something more.

They want to be taken seriously.

It’s no secret that Catholic parishes are not the only congregations that worry about their future if they cannot attract younger members. The increasing number of “nones” who do not identify themselves with allegiance to any formal religious affiliation — often describing themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” — are often searching.

They look for community and a sense of life purpose. Will they find any of these walking into a parish Mass on a Sunday? If they did manage to come, perhaps on the invitation of a friend, what would make them stay and keep coming?

We often have heard it said that our young people are our future. I suspect that this can seem a little off-putting. “Our” future? What about “their” future? And what about their present: their presence here and now?

As reliable and regular church members watch their graying numbers grow (before they gradually decline), can we also begin to envision our congregations with the same age spread as one would typically find at a ballgame or a theme park? After all, if every parish is a family, then, like a good family, we include all our members in our plans and celebrations.

Let’s help our young people find the living presence of Jesus in our midst, welcoming them not just to occupy empty seats, but to feed and sustain their growing faith. They want and need to know Jesus now.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published in The Evangelist on Nov. 2, 2017.