Building bridges between young adults and members of religious communities

Building bridges between young adults and members of religious communities

By Mary Johnson SNDdeN

The theme of this Convocation is bridge building between religious congregations and young adults. It sounds simple enough, but just look at our backdrop here in northern New Jersey. Not too far away from here are magnificent bridges that link us to New York. They are inspiring works of artistry and engineering that evoke awe. But they also evoke gratitude to the people who risked their lives and to those who died while building those bridges. Bridges are not built overnight and they are not built easily. Often there is nothing below the builders but thin air. Does this remind you of anything in your ministry? Because your ministry is fundamentally bridge building.

We turn now to the master bridge builder for guidance on how to proceed in your important work. We find it in John’s Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with two of John the Baptist’s disciples whom Jesus noticed following him. Jesus turned to the two and asked, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where do you live?” “Come and see,” he answered them. We have heard this story innumerable times. Indeed those lines “come and see” are inscribed on vocation posters all over the United States. But it is only recently in light of some of my research findings that I have put new questions to Jesus in this story because those three brief statements were life-altering in his time. And I believe that we hear their echoes in the religious congregations and the young adults of our time.

These are some of the questions I have now about that Gospel story. And these are some of the questions I have for us today as we re-live that Gospel story, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. The first question: When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” was he hoping for a certain answer? Something simple like, “Could you cure my neighbor’s blindness or chase a few demons out of him or raise him from the dead?” Was Jesus surprised when the answer to the question had nothing directly to do with his ministry? Had he grown accustomed to hearing requests for him to do something for someone? Was he shocked that their request was to know something about him? Did he fear going deeper with them?

When they asked him, “Where do you live?” did he hesitate before he answered them? Did he wonder what this would mean? Did he wonder why they wanted to know? Or was he delighted? Did he jump at the opportunity to be known better by them? Was he happy that they wanted to see the life that undergirded his work?

We know what his response was, “Come and see.” It’s really a two-fold response. It contains an invitation and a challenge. We know that he did not put them off till the next day or the next week or forever. We know that they went that very day to where he lived and we know that he accompanied them there. We know that they spent the afternoon there together, but we do not know what they talked about. Might they have talked with him about what the young adults talk to us about?

What can we learn from this story? The first question: “What are you looking for?” do we really have the courage to ask it of young adults? What if we ask it and their response is not the one we want to hear? Are we willing to be surprised by them, shocked by them, infuriated by them, maybe delighted by them? The second question: “Where do you live?” do we have the courage to answer it? Do we have the courage to allow them in further beyond our ministries to see more of our lives? The third part of the exchange: “Come and see,” do we have the courage to extend the invitation and the challenge and to enter into the dialogue and the relationship that will follow.

In this passage, we see the master bridge builder at work. We see his reaching out to those who were obviously trying to get close to him but who had not yet put their desire into words. We see them responding then to his overture and articulating a request that might have been different from all of the other requests he received that day. We see him responding with his whole self, ready to reveal more of himself to those who desired a deeper relationship with him. We see them entering into his home and his heart. We see in this passage the intimacy and the depth of relationship and the desire for relationship for which the young people and so many religious yearn today. We see Jesus responding to the complex question, “Where do you live?”

Where do you live?

In light of all my research in the last few years, I believe that this question, of all questions, is the one being put to us today. Where do you live? It is a question that contains many levels of wonder. Whether we like it or not, whether we are ready for it or not, whether we want to answer it or not, I think it is the fundamental question. On one level, it is about where we physically live, but on many other levels it’s about how we live— under the roof and beyond the roof. I want to begin to address those levels of the question here because I do not think we can shy away from them.

On that first level, it is about where we physically live and that should be no surprise since this is one of the defining characteristics of our life. It makes our life distinctive. Not better, not worse than any other life, but different. It also serves as a marker of distinctiveness in a way that most of our ministries no longer do. For instance, recent data from CARA tell us that there are now over 20,000 lay ministers in the church. In many places young people are accustomed to seeing lay people in a variety of ministerial roles, on the parish and diocesan levels and beyond. Studies also tell us that about 93 percent of the teachers in the Catholic schools in the U.S. are lay people. So at Emmanuel College the distinguishing characteristic of my life is not that I teach. A lot of other people do that there, and they do it very well. So how do we go deeper than that? How do I go deeper than that? And in what ways do the young people challenge us to go deeper than that?

We should also not be surprised by the question, “Where do you live?” because so much of the struggle of daily life for people across all social classes has to do with issues of work and family life, issues of caregiving, child rearing, violence, communication, balance, sustaining marriage bonds and family ties, intimacy and more. No, we should not be surprised by that question. Nor should we react to it and assume that an interest in community means no interest in mission or ministry. In no way did Jesus react that way. Instead he created space and he made time and he entered into relationship with them.

And we should not be surprised by the question because 90 percent of the U.S. population marries, and for them, that is their primary unit. That is where they live. And by live, I do not mean just a street address. That is where they abide. So the questions put to us often have to do with our primary unit, and our primary unit is so counter to what the society knows. And in the eyes of so many, this is the place that is linked with our vows and our communal prayer life. This is the place that undergirds our ministries. We have to talk about this because our Constitutions and Chapter Acts and our documents are filled with beautiful language about community. And it cannot all be interpreted to mean global community or regional community or parish community or the province or the congregation, etc., etc. And this question is not just an issue for apostolic religious. Contemplatives, monastics and missionaries and those in the evangelical life also have to struggle with how to build authentic community under the same roof.

There are hundreds of definitions of community in sociology, but it is essential to not let this word be watered down to the point of meaninglessness. We recall with gratitude the efforts of our sisters and brothers three decades ago who fought to define poverty as material poverty and who have left a legacy that young Catholics today embrace, a commitment to the materially poor. In our national study of young adults confirmed in adolescence, we found a strong belief that God is present in a particular way among the poor, and a strong belief that commitment to the poor is constitutive of Catholic identity. That all just did not happen. The commitment to the poor was a value that was defined and lifted up and passed on.

Creating healthy communities

What about the value of community? Is it being lifted up as a value and is it being passed on? What about its link to the vows? In my research I have heard vocation and formation directors all over this country say that they have great difficulty in finding enough communities for interested people and newer members. I have heard interested people say they are looking for congregations with healthy communities. When I asked the women’s orders to enumerate the number and size of local houses, based on a 70 percent response rate, I learned that 80 percent of the houses in this country are comprised of one, two or three members. That does not allow for a lot of breathing room in certain regions of the country. When I asked the post-Vatican II members what was their preferred size of community, the number one answer was between four and seven sisters. We have got to talk about size, distribution, availability and health of local communities. So we must talk about where we live.

But we must also talk about how we live. During that conversation with Jesus that afternoon, might they have asked him certain questions after observing him minister? Might they have asked him, “How do you do it?” and, “Why do you do it?” Might they have asked him, “What keeps you going?,” especially in light of the religious and political leadership of the day. Could they have asked, “What keeps you going?,” in light of the never-ending demands on his time and talents. Might they have asked him, “Who are your friends?” “What do you do when your family does not understand you or your mission?” Could they have asked, “Whom do you love and who loves you?” Might they have asked, “When do you pray?” “Where do you pray?” “How do you pray?” “What do you pray for?” And who is this God anyway whom you call Father?

Barriers to bridge building

My question to you and to me is, “Do we have the courage to create the space and time, individually and collectively, to answer similar questions put to us by the young people of our time?” I think in our heart of hearts we want to. But there are barriers that prevent us from building the beautiful bridges that we could build. Some of them are imposing barriers. Some are the barriers of defensiveness, and some are the barriers of a fear of returning to the past. They are subtle, but they are poisonous. They can sap us of our energy and our hope, our optimism and our faith. If we get defensive— which is one of the key barriers that exists today—if we get defensive about the issue of community, trying to defend what is perceived as hard-won freedoms of the last 30 years, or if we try to make the yearning of the young people for community life into some kind of pathology, then we reject the opportunity that Jesus embraced, the opportunity to deepen relationships under the same roof.

One sister said to me, “Mary, if you expect me to stay home and babysit these people who are looking for the family they never had...” and she went on and on and on. I said to her, “Well, that’s the spirit.” And we didn’t mean the Holy Spirit. If we write off the yearning by young people for community life as a pathology, we reject an opportunity to create new communities for a new century, to go into the future as wiser, more loving, more prayerful, more radical religious women and men.

This is not about going back to a past that is more than three decades old. But that past is one which people in their early 40s can barely remember. So how can someone yearn to go back to a past that they never experienced, that they can’t even describe? This is about building a more counter-cultural present and future. This is about tapping into the distinctiveness that is our very way of life. And for any group to survive in a society as fluid and fast-paced as ours, a group has to be distinct. The question of distinctiveness has been tossed around, and often it is talked about in very simplistic ways. And what I think we have to do is go much deeper into what is the truth about our distinctiveness.

If we reject these impulses that surround us, then I think we will fail to truly embrace young adults and the many cultures from which they come: racial, ethnic, social class, educational, occupational, family of origin, but also spiritual and theological as well. Now let me give you an example of this from the research. One is an example of where we succeeded in making a bridge, another is where we broke a possible bridge. When we asked young adults what spiritual practices they had engaged in during the last two years, a quarter of them have attended eucharistic adoration. More than half had said the rosary. If we use the term conservative to describe these practices and if we cut ourselves off from entering into a conversation about what these practices mean to them, not what they meant 35 years ago, but what they mean today, then we essentially cut ourselves off from new life, and we commit corporate suicide. Old symbols are being imbued with new meanings today. Old symbols are being woven with new ones to create whole new meaning systems.

Old symbols, new meaning

I have talked to many young people as they leave eucharistic adoration. Hardly anyone talks about a theology of the Eucharist. Instead, they describe the quiet and the stillness they have just experienced. They talk about how their heart rate and breathing slow down during that time. They talk about how they can finally listen after the noise and speed of their day. In those instances, they are not contrasting their time with something that happened 35 years ago, they’re contrasting their time with the wider culture, and they see this as an example of distinctiveness. They see it as a time to slow down, to quiet down, to listen and to pray.

But bridge breakers surround us while bridge makers surround us, and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference because all of us are so busy in our ministries and our lives. One sister told me that before a group of students on her campus went to demonstrate at the School of the Americas, they met regularly for prayer. They said the rosary together. They linked the rosary with civil disobedience. That sister could identify the new weaving.

Another sister told me that a group of young mothers of children in her school asked her to meet for prayer together one morning a week because they feared that in that particular neighborhood their children would be abducted. I asked her if she joined them for morning prayer to pray for the safety of the children. She said that she had intended to until she realized that the mothers prayed the rosary, and that prayer reminded her too much of the past. Then I went to the mothers and I asked them what that particular prayer meant to them. They said they prayed to a woman who understood what it was like to be frantic with worry while looking for her young, lost son.

We have to admit that the past is affecting our future more powerfully than we care to or dare to admit. It has the potential to crush our future if we don’t address it. But it was not like that at all with Jesus. He seized that moment and entered into the moment and thus entered into a relationship with those two disciples. Come and see—three words with radical consequences for real intimacy. Real intimacy, one of the most profound yearnings of the young and of religious. There is the point of connection. We are more like them than we care to admit. There is a part of us that wants to keep them other. And sometimes that resistance happens within our own walls and it is so difficult to see. Some of our own sisters and brothers doubt that religious life will continue. Some of them doubt religious life has anything to offer to young people. They even think that our ministry of vocation work isn’t even worth the time and the effort. Even those who say they believe sometimes make decisions that undercut their words. And some are preoccupied with what I, and others, think are untenable ideas about new forms of religious life, which are basically formless, that they sometimes do not see the young people and their hopes and dreams and the points of connection between the young people and our distinct way of life.

Faith at the core

So how do we cope with that internally when we confront it? I think that we remember that this is all about faith. It is all about faith in God, faith in our way of life and mission, and faith in young adults. It is about faith that God is at work in religious life and in young adults, that God continues to move religious life forward and God continues to bring religious life to young people.

And it is about faith that the people that you and I really work for on a daily basis, the people who hope we succeed in this endeavor, the people who really need a sister or brother because they never had one or because their own brothers and sisters failed them, they’re not the people who are the powerful and the wellconnected of the society. So we don’t get a daily dose of affirmation. The ones who need a brother or sister out there, not just in this country but beyond, are the abused and the neglected and the impoverished and the uneducated and the ill and the dying and the homeless, the demeaned, the despised, the imprisoned. This conference is really for them. Our lives are really for them. A few miles away in New York City, the leaders of the nations of the world are gathered. Some of them aren’t talking about the people in their countries who are abused, neglected, impoverished, uneducated, ill, dying, homeless, demeaned, despised or imprisoned. So we become brothers and sisters to them.

Many generations, many gifts

Now internally we have to have resources to build these bridges, internally in your own heart and spirituality, but also within your congregations. And sometimes I think some people think we don’t have too many resources right now. What do we have to offer? But as I travel, I’m reminded of the notion of a person going into an art gallery. If she stands too close to a magnificent painting or sculpture, she can’t see the beauty. So we have to stand back a little. And when we do, we realize that we’ve got what people need. And one of our greatest resources is the multi-generational aspect of our life. I’ve just begun to describe what I see as the gifts of the generations in our orders. Often we just look at the challenges of multi-generational living and thinking and at generational differences, but we don’t look at the gifts. Let me start with the older sisters and brothers among us. First, their peace is palpable. They suggest that fidelity is possible. They show the world that they made vows and kept them through so many changes in the church and the world. They prove that vows can be made and kept. They prove that commitment can last for a lifetime, that something can really be perpetual. They care for one another, and in a day of road rage and air rage, they exude a profound peace.

Theirs is a profound acceptance of aging and diminishment in a society that denies or disguises aging. They age with gorgeous grace. In a society that is loud and fast, theirs is a quiet calm. They prove that people can live together and care for one another and reverence memories together and continue to grow. They were pioneers in so many ways, sacrificed so much, built so many institutions, had to let go of so much and now they make light of it all. They are reservoirs of unconditional love. They can find something good to say about the rest of us. They pose the question for us, “How can people who have so little have so much,” and “Why the joy?” In a society that says that at death the one with the most toys wins, they say to that society that they have no property, no children, no status, and yet they’re so happy. Why are they so happy?

Now the middle group. They came of age during the Second Vatican Council, during the renewal years. They were set on fire by the flame of the Council and the renewal of religious life. They were propelled by a commitment to the poor. They created a whole slew of new ministries in response to the needs of the time. They continue to dream of new initiatives to meet the needs of the marginalized. They call forth the voices and gifts of women. They inspire the young to seek social justice. They focus on the needs and the gifts of the individual. They are wary of oppressive structures and systems and institutions. They have navigated the choppy waters of church and society. They cherish a vision of a vibrant church. They counter the gross disregard for the poor in the society. They value collaboration and inclusivity.

Finally, there is the post-Vatican II group. They desire to meld community and ministry and prayer and relationships. They seek to counter the workaholism in the wider culture, the abusive relationships. They yearn for an integration of ministry and community. They yearn for honest relationships, for balance, for facing issues of human sexuality. They are realistic about the world and the church, and they seek to integrate contemplation and action. They are open to diversity of so many types. They are sensitive to issues of mind, body and soul, and the environment, to issues of the therapeutic and family of origin and they seek to meld the psychic and the social. They demonstrate a radical commitment to the poor and a sensitivity to human suffering in all forms. They desire egalitarian relations and balanced lives, and they yearn to create smaller and more human institutions and systems.

A question for us now is what gifts will the next generation bring? But first, they have to be allowed in the door. Will other generations lock the door? How is the door blocked in blatant and subtle ways? Will the story of the generations of religious life be allowed to continue?

We know the gospel story continued. The two men who came for the afternoon stayed for a lifetime. Andrew and John followed Jesus to the end. Andrew even brought along his brother Simon for the adventure. Our story continues. It is not too late. God’s grace can break through fear, cynicism, fatalism, narcissism, muddled ideologies and every other force that has the potential to paralyze us. Come and see. It is not just an invitation and a challenge to the young. For those who live and love this religious life of ours, who are grateful for our call and who are amazed at the gift that our vows and community and prayer and ministries are and have been to the marginalized of the world, we have no choice but to continue, all through our lives, to come and see.

I want to thank you very much for your invitation to me and I pray that God blesses your days together as you support one another in this very important ministry.

Mary Johnson, SND de N, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was one of the keynote speakers at Convocation 2000. This article is the print version of her address. Sister Mary is an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at Emmanuel College in Boston. Recently she and her colleagues Dean Hoge, William Dinges and Juan Gonzales completed a national study of young adult Catholics in the U.S. The results of the study will appear this spring in the book, Young Adult Catholics: Religion in a Culture of Choice, to be published by University of Notre Dame Press.


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