You might think it strange that, here in the height of the summer and baseball seasons that I would be writing about football. Why? Because I love football! The fall season is arguably my favorite time of the year not just because the seasons are changing and the weather gets a little cooler. More importantly, the fall season brings us football season as well, one of my favorite activities!
I’m not sure how or when I got hooked on football. The sport was not a mainstay in my family entertainment schedule. But I started playing in 7th grade on a 6-man league followed by a move up to the full 11-man teams in 8th grade. When it came time to register for high school, I was eager to meet the freshman football coach and start practicing at the high school level. By the time I graduated high school, I had two varsity letters and lots of fond memories on the gridiron. These hot, humid days, mixed with the smell of fresh cut grass, remind me of late summer practices on the practice field.
Why am I spending so much rhetoric on football? Did I mention that I love football? Because I love football so much, I know the difference between a quarterback, fullback, halfback, cornerback and nickelback. You don’t have to explain to me what the significance of the line of scrimmage is, or why the line of gain is so important to both the offense and defense. I enjoy watching the game, whether it’s at a local high school matchup or a nationally televised broadcast of a collegiate or professional game. One of my daughters will often ask me which team I plan to cheer for when they announce a game and when I don’t really care which team wins I might reply with something like, “whoever is wearing the white uniform.” It doesn’t matter who wins, I just really enjoy football.
In contrast to my love of football, I do not particularly care for math. It’s not that I don’t value math – good math skills are important and are used every day! Academically, I struggled with math in school. As hard as I tried with homework and extra help with my teachers, if I got a C on a test, I was excited! My mom, of course, was not, and was always on me about my grades! I took college prep level classes in high school and I can vaguely remember concepts like sine and cosine, the Pythagorean Theorem and the FOIL method. But because I did not love math, I did not strive for excellence in my math studies. I endured my math lessons and am happy to not have to endure those lessons again.
If you are still reading this article, you are probably wondering where I am going with this story. I’m writing about my experiences growing up to illustrate an important point about discipleship. In my time here as part of the bishop’s curia staff, I’ve had numerous conversations about how we catechize our young people. Invariably during these conversations, I’ll hear something about how we need to do a better job of communicating the faith to the next generation. Many people lament to me about how deficient young people are in their knowledge of the faith. While I certainly agree that we can all learn more about our faith, I’ve tried time and again to explain to my conversation partners how catechesis is not the problem. The problem, in my opinion, is that we as the Church have not effectively evangelized our young people. We have many fine catechists who present the Catholic faith through an organized and systematic curriculum that can effectively transmit the truths about our faith.
Yet, despite effective catechesis, the statistics about the religiosity of young people paints a bleak picture – roughly 8 out of 10 (79%) young people leave the Catholic Church by the age of 23. What gives?
If we are effectively catechizing, why are young people still leaving the Church? Young people are leaving the Church not because of poor catechesis. They are leaving because they have never had a conversion experience that helped them experience Christ in a personal way.
Let me explain… Did I mention I love football? And that, because I love football, I do a lot to actively seek out opportunities to interact with the sport? Faith is so much more than the facts and information that we study in catechesis. If we want young people to become life-long disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to help our young Church fall in love with Him and to have a personal encounter so that Jesus is alive and real in their lives. When we fall in love with Jesus, just like how I fell in love with football, we will eagerly seek out ways to grow closer to Him and His Church. Otherwise all the catechesis in the world will be of little help, much like how all the instruction in the world did little to help me grow in understanding of math because I did not love the subject the same way I love football (did I mention I love football???)
What I have learned through this reflection is that our focus in ministry should be on conversion! Without a metanoia experience, a turning point in a young person’s life, catechesis will do little to motivate anyone to be a life-long disciple of Jesus. Not that we should completely abandon the head knowledge (catechesis). Unless hearts are won over for Christ (evangelization), we will be nothing more than a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal because we do not love Jesus (I read something about this in 1 Corinthians 13!)
How do we convert hearts to Jesus Christ? Start by telling your own story.
Why are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? What is it about being Catholic that excites you the most? What experiences did you have in your life where you felt a close and personal connection with Jesus Christ? Share other people’s experiences, too. We have this wonderful example from holy men and women who have gone before us called the Communion of Saints. Their stories paint an amazing mosaic of the many and unique ways each of these holy men and women encountered Jesus Christ. Immerse young people in the richness of our Catholic traditions! The smells and bells of Liturgy are meant to bring all our senses into the experience of the sacred. Finally, don’t forget to pray!
Converting hearts to Christ relies thoroughly on God’s grace and we should constantly pray that we be effective witnesses of that grace.
I love Jesus more than I love football. And because of my love for Him I do everything I can to learn more about Him and His Church, just as I do because of my love for football . Our challenge as disciples is to find ways to help young people fall in love with Jesus so that they, too, pursue Christ with the same passion that I pursue football.
Kyle Holtgrave is the Director of the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Springfield, IL. Kyle and his family are also longtime Cathedral Parishioners. You can contact Kyle and find out more information on the Diocese of Springfield website: http://www.dio.org/youthministry