What’s Past Is Prologue?
by Bill Droel
Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati was the setting for a recent conference about young adult Catholics. It was a positive conference because no one complained about bishops, priests or Vatican policy. And no one faulted young adults for disaffection from worship or for their lifestyle. By design, several conference presentations were about bygone people and events. But the event was not a nostalgia trip. The conversation was forward-looking. The tone of the conference was directed toward the world of work, family and neighborhood. The participants drew upon past experience, but only to emphasize the importance of listening to the real experience of today’s young adults. The conference was unanimous: Talking is worthless without organizing.
The Cincinnati conference was dedicated to a person who died more than 50 years ago: Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), the originator of the specialized Catholic Action method and the inspiration for several groups (Christian Family Movement, Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Students and more). The Cardijn method and specialized Catholic Action mostly faded in the late-1960s–at least in the United States. There are Cardijn-inspired groups percolating in Latin America and Africa, conference participants learned. The Cincinnati gathering included representatives from the Republic of Guinea, El Salvador and Chile. Plus, there were representatives from Australia.
Catholic leaders in the United States want to attract and retain young adults to our faith tradition. They sometimes use the term new evangelization. What Catholic leaders usually mean (and here I employ a big generalization) is attracting young adults into the church. The strategies include social events, vibrant liturgies, reverent pieties, service projects, inspiring talks and more. Many programs for young adult Catholics are worthwhile.
The basic premise for Cardijn was different, however. He did not start from the notion of bringing people into the church. In fact, he worried that young adult ministry can unwittingly reinforce individualism by conveying the impression that the church is separate from young adult environments. Instead, Cardijn and his movements sought to bring Christianity to young adults in their workplaces and schools and family settings. The basic unit is not the individual who searches for meaning or faith. The basic unit is a small group, formed among people who work together or study together or live near one another. Thus, ministry is not something done for young adults; it is done by young adults with an emphasis on their own formation. Success is measured not by how many new people are recruited for parish committees or by how many get involved in liturgical functions. Success is when a Catholic Action group achieves a small improvement in workplace policy or neighborhood relations or school settings.
Several presenters at the Cincinnati conference made the point that talk, talk, talk is not formation. A book club that considers pastoral theology, a speakers’ series during Lent, an intensive RCIA curriculum, a summer theology update program, or a monthly discussion group about Catholic topics is OK. But these do not really form or retain young adults. The secret ingredient is action. Not run-around activity with only vague goals in mind. No, the key is small focused action directed at a subpar policy or practice in the school, neighborhood or workplace. And then… now this must occur… a reflection on the action by the entire small group.
The Cardijn method is a tad sophisticated, yet it can be implemented by ordinary people in workaday settings. It requires patience, but it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time top-to-bottom, beginning-to-end. Katie Sellers, for example, tried a little Cardijn among her high school students at DePaul Cristo Rey in Cincinnati. She was teaching Catholic morality. But the students, Sellers admitted to the conference participants, were snoozing. So she introduced a case study about a woman in jail. Then the students went through the Cardijn steps: Look at this situation carefully; judge the situation in light of our own experience and our Catholic principles; act in some way. Amazingly, the students interviewed lawyers and others in criminal justice, they read Catholic documents, they collected supplies and eventually arranged a tele-meeting with the prisoner. She, in turn, encouraged the students to continue their study and their actions.
Frank Ardito from Illinois, a veteran of Catholic Action, also provided the conference with examples. Sure, he admitted, one or another small group session might fizzle. Maybe the guidebook wasn’t clear that week. Maybe the group leader misinterprets the prevailing mood. But over time the process does form people in the faith. They want to belong to the group and they want to make a difference back in their workplace or school.
Bob Pennington is a young parent and a teacher. He was responsible for the details of the Cincinnati conference. He has a young colleague in New York and they are in touch with others their age around the country, in addition to their international contacts. They do not intend to put the enthusiasm from their conference back up on a bookshelf. They want more action. Interested? Contact Pennington (firstname.lastname@example.org).
-Bill Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).