It can be a dicey proposition for a curious Catholic to push out into the choppy waters of Church statistics. The further out you venture, the more grim things look; and as you peer toward the horizon, the clouds appear darker and the waves higher.
There are fewer priests serving fewer parishes and fewer seminarians to take their place. Religious orders have a fraction of the brothers and sisters they had a generation or two ago. Infant baptisms are down, as are adult baptisms. Fewer children are receiving their first Communions. Church weddings are down. Mass attendance is down. There are fewer Catholic elementary schools educating fewer grade-school children; the trend is similar in Catholic high schools throughout the United States.
One statistic stands out as a beacon of hope. This fall, assuming recent trends continue, a record number of students will be roaming dorm hallways and filling up lecture halls on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities across the country. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the student population at Catholic colleges has nearly doubled over the past 50 years — from more than 400,000 in 1970 to 770,000 in 2018.
Saint Louis University reported its largest freshman class ever — more than 1,900 first-year students.
Not all of those students are Catholic, and statistics suggest that many of those who identify as Catholic eventually may stray from the faith. But to focus only on potential negative outcomes would mean missing the very real opportunity the Church is presented with in spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to a population that sorely needs it.
St. John Paul II, in a meeting with Catholic educators in Newfoundland in 1984, stressed the importance of the Church for young people. “Young people today are buffeted in every direction by loud and competing claims upon their attention and allegiance,” he said. “From around the world, they hear daily messages of conflict and hostility, of greed and injustice, of poverty and despair. Amidst this social turmoil, young people are eager to find solid and enduring values which can give meaning and purpose to their lives. They are searching for a firm place — a high ground — on which to stand. They seek a sense of direction, a goal which will give meaning and purpose to their lives.”
Most accredited colleges or universities — Catholic or secular — have the ability to provide a quality education that prepares students for their future career. And while learning how to solve algebra equations or format parenthetical citations might not be dependent on there being a crucifix on the classroom wall, Catholic colleges help students develop more than just their intellect; they help to form men and women of character. Students on Catholic campuses are surrounded by a support system that accompanies them on their academic and spiritual journeys — from professors who model the faith in their classrooms, to chaplains offering the sacraments as well as spiritual guidance, to faith-filled friends who are there to lean on. When these students graduate and move on to their careers, they do so as young men and women equipped not only with the skills to excel in their particular fields, but also with their moral compass pointed toward serving Christ and serving others. It is in this formation of disciples that we find an abundance of hope.
In Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive”), the apostolic exhortation that followed the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, Pope Francis responds to a friend asking what he sees in today’s young person. He writes: “I see someone who is searching for his or her own path, who wants to fly on their two feet, who faces the world and looks at the horizon with eyes full of the future, full of hope as well as illusions. … To talk about young people is to talk about promise and to talk about joy. Young people have so much strength; they are able to look ahead with hope.”
This is the hope to which we cling amid rough seas. Despite the storm clouds, we see light on the horizon piercing the darkness.
This editorial was originally published by Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic newsweekly.