I spent last week in New Haven mourning the death of my grandfather and celebrating his long life. I was fortunate to be with his wife of 62 years, my grandmother, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins during this difficult time. My grandfather was the son of German Catholic immigrants, and he served in World War II before marrying my grandmother in 1947. Together they raised 7 children, and were blessed with 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Preparing for his wake and funeral Mass, my grandfather’s Catholic faith was evident to all. He would be buried with his rosary wrapped around his hands, and his funeral would be celebrated at his parish church. He would wear a Knights of Columbus lapel pin.
Because of the circumstances, faith and religion were forefront on my mind much of the week. As the forty of us were together, I noticed that my family is a microcosm of the church in the U.S. today. My grandparents are both devout and weekly churchgoers. Their children, my aunts and uncles, were all raised in the post-conciliar church, and all are confirmed Catholics, but many are no longer practicing. Some express antipathy toward church teachings, others have fallen astray after years of stale liturgies or bad experiences with priests and nuns. Only a couple attend Mass regularly. Among my cousins, most do not practice their faith and have very little understanding of basic Catholic theology or culture. And perhaps worse than expressing anger or resentment toward the church, they see it and its teachings as irrelevant to their lives and their actions.
This one family represents a phenomenon the church is experiencing today. My family are thoughtful, caring, and loving individuals. The way they care for my grandmother and one another is truly remarkable and a manifestation of God’s grace. At the funeral Mass, we prayed together and participated in rituals that brought us comfort and consolation at a difficult time. But for most of my family, the church is not the regular outlet for meditation, formation of conscience, or even considered a place to connect with God.
The church must ask itself difficult questions if my generation is not to be separated from the sacraments. Why are baby boomers so reluctant to call the church their spiritual home? Has the next generation already been lost? What are we teaching our children about the faith? Are our liturgies adequately expressing God’s love for God’s children? Is the church talking in language that resonates with a modern world?
I don’t think the answers to these questions will be pleasant to hear for those who care about the church, but asking them is vital.
My grandfather was an accomplished engineer, a devoted husband, a caring father and grandfather, and a lifelong Catholic. I’m sure he is proud that the last descriptor is applied to his life, and I wonder if my generation will be robbed of that joy at the end of their lives if the church fails to discover ways to keep the young faithful engaged in the life of the church.