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The Geezer Seminar Has Few to Pass on the Torch BENJAMIN D. WIKER
My family and I were wedged in among the students in our little college chapel a couple of Sundays ago. As I sat there on the verge of passing out from the combination of stifling heat and thick incense, it occurred to me what a good problem this was to have. Not the stuffy air, but the packed pews. After all, most of the bodies there belonged to students, many of whom also attend one of three Masses every weekday.
Looking around the sanctuary, I saw that these young people were not just putting in their time but were truly present in Christ's presence". I gained strength from the intensity of their prayer and found myself wishing that this ambience or sanctity had surrounded me when I was their age.
Perhaps I wouldn't have stopped to think about these things that day had I not come across an article in our local Sunday newspaper a few weeks prior. The report told that the Jesus Seminar had brought its annual lecture program to town. The Jesus Seminar is a gathering of Scripture scholars whose stated aim is to demythologize the New Testament by showing that Jesus was merely a misunderstood man nothing more, nothing less. The newspaper headline read, Graying of Jesus Seminar Worries Event's Organizers.
The whole thing will die unless we figure out how to reach young people, lamented organizer and scholar Robert Funk in the article. We need to turn this into a mass movement!
Mulling over the diverging directions which these two movements were headed, both of them with Jesus as the center of their attention I was moved to reflect on how much things have changed since I was a student, for both me and the culture at large.
I was not Catholic when I was an undergraduate, so I never witnessed anything like the deep, sacramental faith of those young men and women in our college chapel. Had I done so, I am sure my college days would have been far more morally and spiritually fruitful. My graduate school days were spent, to be frank, with the kind of folk who populate Jesus Seminar presentations ever seeking, never finding. (Fortunately, in my case the spiritual lack eventually helped bring about a conversion.)
The more I thought about the glaring contrast between these two generations, the more intrigued I became with the idea that a major trend just might be afoot. Later on, I e-mailed the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, better known as FOCUS, which trains college students to evangelize other college students. I asked about their numbers.
We are seeing tremendous growth on each of the campuses we work with, one of the organization's leaders wrote back. On new campuses we are more than doubling our size every year which is as fast as we are able, given the need for trained staff and financial support:'
Is all this a sign that the world is really turning upside-down, spiritually speaking? I believe it is.
The crowds of young men and women who turn out to greet Pope John Paul II, especially at his youth rallies, consistently exceed expectations both in number and devotion. Even in France, where the percentage of Catholics attending Sunday Mass is reported to be minuscule, more than 1 million young people went to Mass with the Holy Father. No one from my generation could have predicted this development 20 years ago.
Part of this, of course, is that the Holy Spirit is always where we most need him. Just when it looked as though the tide of secularization might extinguish the faith completely, our young people show signs of being touched by the Holy Spirit en masse.
Another source of religious fervor among the young is, I suspect, the much more sober view of human progress demanded by the events of this century. Today's young men and women are well aware that the past 100 years have brought both the greatest comforts and conveniences; the world has ever knownand the most bloodshed and moral confusion.
Their parents' generation, which came of age in midcentury, was young when human optimism was at its peak. Many of them thought that we might actually be able to put all war behind us and just keep on growing closer to one another as a sort of godless family of man. Many still march to this drumbeat, believing that human beings can heal themselves of all evils if they'll just set their minds to it.
The younger generation who missed the midcentury euphoria that lulled many of us into not only practical agnosticism, but saw the breakdown of the moral order that resulted are more willing to look heavenward for answers. Clearly, they see the need for more than merely human saviors.
The newspaper said most of the attendees at the Jesus Seminar, as well as the presenters, were in their 50s, 60s and 70s. It quoted one of the very few young people there as saying: It's kind of disheartening. There's nobody here to take up the torch.
Maybe that's because so many of them are too busy praying to Jesus to find the time or the reasons to set their hearts and minds on discrediting him.
Now that may be a little overly optimistic on my part: Only God knows what this springtime of faith will bring. But, heading into the third millennium, it is certainly a source of deep hope and joy that so many of today's young Christians are as zealous as their first-century counterparts.
Benjamin D. Wiker. The 'Geezer' Seminar Has Few to Pass on the Torch. National Catholic Register. (December 4, 1999).
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Benjamin D. Wiker teaches at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.
Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register