This vineyard can bear fruit

Two friends of mine – fervent, practicing Catholics in their mid-20s – recently welcomed their first child. As you might guess, they are well aware that being married, having kids, going to Mass every Sunday, and intentionally living according to the teachings of the Church, puts them in a distinct minority among twenty-somethings in the year 2017. As a result, they have had a lot of conversations about how they are going to pass on the Catholic faith to their new daughter (and hopefully to their other children yet to come as well). They asked me at one point, “Father, what if we do everything right, and she still ends up leaving the Church?”

“One thing is for sure,” I quipped, “You will not do everything right!” Any honest parent knows that to be the case. But their concern is a very good one – how to be sure to pass on the Faith that one has received to one’s children?

What, though, does this heartwarming story about young, Catholic parenthood have to do with the wicked vineyard tenants in today’s Gospel? Let’s delve a little deeper into the story. As the responsorial psalm proclaims: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” God had elected the people of Israel to be His chosen nation, but they rejected that calling by closing themselves off and refusing the calls to conversion the Lord sent them through the prophets – represented in the parable by the servants sent by the vineyard owner to his tenants to collect what they owe him.

The chief priests and the elders listening to Christ would have immediately connected his parable to the strong rebuke given by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel: “Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin.” Harsh words, indeed.

These rebukes, my brothers and sisters, are not presented to us today by Holy Mother Church merely so that we might join in accusing the chief priests and elders of infidelity to their sacred task. Rather, they are meant for us as well. We too should feel the prophet’s rebuke for the times when our own spiritual lives have yielded wild, bitter grapes, rather than the good harvest the Lord expects from His vineyard.

There are many ways each of us could give account of not bearing spiritual fruit in our lives, but rather than thinking about this passage individualistically, I would like to think today about it collectively, hence my story about my friend’s newborn baby and their growing preoccupation: Will she grow up to practice the Catholic faith that her parents are passing on to her? In our own day and age, the vineyard that does not bear fruit can be seen in the missing generation of young adults – from the pews at Mass and from the life of our parishes. It is time for us to collectively come to grips with a chilling fact: We have not born the fruit that God expects. When one out of five young adults in America identifies as having no religious affiliation, we have not born fruit. And when only one in five of young adults raised Catholic is currently an engaged, practicing Catholic, we have not born fruit.

Now, of course I do not say any of this to discredit the presence and contributions of the young adults who are here and are such an important part of our parish. I, after all, am one of them! However, all of us know plenty of our friends from high school or (worse yet) youth group who are no longer practicing their faith – a cause of frustration and sadness for so many of us. I also do not say any of this to discredit the serious work that many parents have done to pass on the Faith to their children. I know that many parents struggle to see their children not practicing the Faith, provoking spiritual crises or even depression. And I am not here to lay the blame at your feet – a massive cultural earthquake shook the ground under which this generation stands, leaving everything different than the way it was before and making the old ways of handing the Faith on to our children ineffective.

But what I am saying is that it is time for a collective realization of where we are in order to imagine where we need to be and how to get there. I could regale you with more statistics, but I do not think that anyone really needs to be convinced: The Church’s demographic situation does not look good.

In the midst of even the bleakest times, though, we are never without hope. We pleaded today with the Lord in the Responsorial Psalm: “Once again, O Lord of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted. … Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name. O Lord, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.”

Likewise, we heard from St. Paul: “if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” As we all know – there are many indeed who are worthy of praise! Even if many young people people are abandoning the Faith, that is hardly true of everyone. So what is imperative at this crossroads in the Church’s life, is for us all to learn from those who have kept the faith, about how the Faith can be transmitted to the next generation.

Obviously, as I mentioned earlier in my response to my friend’s question: “What if we do everything right?”, there is no magic formula to making it 100% certain that your children or grandchildren will practice the faith in the future. But there are things that are proven to help. Over the past several years, a team of researchers have done serious, in-depth demographic studies that reveal important trends in what makes a teenager more likely to be an engaged, practicing Catholic as a young adult. They identified four major pathways that consistently guided a majority of teens through adolescence and the process now known as “adulting” into being adult Catholics. Let’s take a deeper look:

The first group of engaged young adult Catholics had the following characteristics as teenagers: their parents placed a great importance on faith and regularly attended Mass, they themselves placed a high degree of importance on their faith, and they had many adults in their congregation to whom they could turn for help. These are teens whose families are likely very involved in the life of their parishes, which is how they formed substantial relationships with practicing Catholics outside their own immediate families. Here we see the importance too of the family: Families who take the Faith seriously consistently produce children who are much more likely to go on to become practicing Catholics. If you want your children to take their faith seriously later in life, you have to set the bar very, very high as teenagers.

The second group placed a high degree of importance on their faith as teenagers, had many adults in the congregation to turn to, and frequently read the Scriptures. Notice that this path is lacking the family element. That is actually good news for everyone who works as a catechist, teacher, or works in some way with teens. You really can make a difference! The data indicate that – even while controlling for other factors – attending catechism class makes a child more likely to practice their faith later in life. So this is not just something for parents, but rather a responsibility for all of us to be those loving and supportive adults who help the teenagers in our parish to cultivate lives of faith that will last them for the rest of their lives. Even those who do not come from richly Catholic families can stand a good chance if they take their faith seriously now as teenagers and have other Catholic adults to support them.

The third group attended Catholic high school, placed a high degree of importance on their faith as teenagers, and had low parental involvement with the Faith. This group shows the value of Catholic education, and why even those of us who do not have children in Catholic schools should support Catholic education – because it consistently has the power to build a life of faith in children and teens who otherwise would not receive that formation at home. Yet another way in which we all can make a difference.

The fourth group did not go to Catholic high school, placed a high degree of importance on their faith as teens, and had parents who were highly involved in their faith. This is good news for all of us, since we do not have a Catholic high school readily accessible here in Elkhart County! Once again, the importance of the faith and practice of the parents comes out here as a critical factor for whether or not teens will go on to be engaged, practicing Catholics as adults.

Did you notice the one, critical factor that was present in every one of the four pathways to adult, engaged Faith? They all placed a high degree of importance on faith as teenagers. There is a clear lesson here: If your teenaged children place a high degree of importance on their faith now, they are much more likely to do so later. What you do to cultivate their faith life now deeply matters.

So what, then, were the factors that lead teens to place a high degree of importance on their faith? There were three: First, these teens believed that their Catholic faith had an impact on their daily life. Help your children – and the teens with whom you interact – to see the ways in which Catholicism is not just an abstract collection of ideas, but consists in a real relationship with Christ that has a serious impact on the decisions they make every day. Second, these teens believed in miracles. Show them the ways that God is still working in the world (the upcoming 100th anniversary of the apparitions of our Lady at Fatima on Oct. 13 would be a great opportunity for that!). Third, these teens reported having significant spiritual experiences. This is why having your children attend retreats and other youth ministry functions is so important, because it gives them the chance for those valuable encounters with the Holy Spirit that have the power to transform their lives into adulthood.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this vineyard can bear fruit. With families that place a high degree of importance on their faith – who attend Holy Mass faithfully every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, who pray together daily, who go to Confession together, and who participate in the life of their parish – and with catechists, teachers, and other adults who bear witness to the faith to our young people, we can rear children and teenagers who will go on to become the young adults who are practicing and engaged Catholics.

But we must never forget that what we do is not nearly as important as the grace given to us by God. We must consistently beg him – on our knees before the Most Blessed Sacrament, and in every moment of our lives – for the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will make the young people of our Church, our world, and our parish burst into flame with Christ’s love. This vineyard CAN – BEAR – FRUIT. God will do His part. Will you do yours?

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXVII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVII