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‘Rejoice in the Lord Always!’ - Bishop Anthony’s Address

Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2012
Bishop Anthony with delegates from the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta at the 2012 Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention.

Address by Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention, ‘Rejoice in the Lord Always!’ (Phil 4:4), Campbelltown Catholic Club, Saturday 22 September 2012

Some years ago I got a degree in bioethics, earning me the title of ‘doctor’. I’ve found it’s a title best kept secret, as people start asking for free medical advice once they hear it and I’m in no position to give that! Nonetheless, today I want to play doctor for a while, but doctor of the soul more than the body, of the culture more than a particular patient.

Med students are taught many things, some of them useful. One is that four steps are indispensable to a medical analysis of a person’s situation: an observation of the symptoms; a diagnosis of the disease or trauma causing the symptoms; a prognosis of the likely course of the condition and the prospects for healing, if any, given the various options; and finally a prescription of the best treatment in the circumstances.

Now my patient today is young Australia, especially young Catholic Australians, or young should-be-Catholic Australians. You’ve already received a hint about the prognosis. It is there in the theme of our convention. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says St Paul, “and again I say: Rejoice.” There is hope for the patient! Young Catholic Australia has cause for whoopee, for rejoicing, for party. Whatever is wrong, there is something we can do about it. I’ll return to the prognosis at the end. First we need a diagnosis.

How healthy is our youth culture in Australia? What are the signs of health or disease, of fitness or trauma among young Catholic Australians? If we don’t get a handle on that in our youth ministry we may be very active, even exhaustingly active, very efficient and effective – at doing the wrong thing. If we don’t understand the patient we can find ourselves doing things for them that are useless or, worse, that actually contribute to their deterioration. You are here, in great numbers today – some of you are even from dioceses other than Parramatta! You are here because you are engaged in and passionate about youth ministry. So this morning I’d like to open up some of the research on the context and challenges for youth ministry in the contemporary Church in Australia, so we might reflect in our time together about needs and options for that special kind of spiritual medicine in which you engage.

1. Symptoms and diagnosis of MTD

Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2012

Many commentators suggest that there will be a three-way contest for the human heart in the 21st Century between Christianity, Islam and Atheistic Secularism.

In some ways we’ve seen that playing itself out this week: in the fights over whether Catholic schools should be assisted by the state; in debates over the meaning of marriage; and in the terrible violence all around the world, including here in Australia, in response to an anti-Islamic film.

These three great religions are undoubtedly the big players in the war of ideas.

But there’s a new religion on the block, possibly much more influential upon young people: not Hillsong pentecostalism, not Sydney-Anglican evangelicalism, not Tom Cruise scientology. According to Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, in his important book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), the fastest-growing religion among young people today is what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I think you might call it a syndrome rather than a religion. MTD Syndrome has five doctrines or symptoms:

  • That there is a god, who created and orders the world and watches over human beings
  • That this god wants people to be nice to each other, as taught by the Bible and most world religions
  • That happiness is feeling good about yourself and this is the purpose of life
  • That you don’t have to involve god in this too much except when you’ve got problems and
  • That whatever particular things people do or don’t do in their lives, good people (which is most people) go to heaven when they die.

The strange thing about this religion is that no one knows they are a member! Yet it has a membership and sticking power that would make most gyms jealous. Like many sicknesses, it suppurates beneath the surface …

Let’s look at MTD a little more closely. First, it’s moralistic: it reduces belief to certain behaviours. I think this happens in four steps. The first is to reduce Christian faith to mere propositions of faith. This is all too easy sometimes. We can think: as long as I say all the right things and obey most of the rules I’m an OK Catholic. Faith can become empty formulas, action just secular do-gooding in religious dress-ups. But our faith is first and foremost about a real, personal relationship with Christ. We need to know Christ, not just know about Him, and that is why the Church in Australia is celebrating a Year of Grace at present, a time of starting afresh from Christ.

Step two in the moralising of Christians is to reduce faith to morality. Christians are often thought to be moralistic, to be ever-conscious of evil and forever wagging their fingers at evils. Not much “rejoicing” in all that! I remember Archbishop Wilton Gregory, when President of the US Bishops’ Conference, saying that Christians are supposed to be the happiest people alive, to be full of spiritual joy, so would someone please tell their faces! Christian faith is about liberation from evil and personal encounter with the One who heals, befriends, directs, delights! So as well as creeds and commandments, it’s about sacraments, beatitudes, virtues, spiritual gifts and more. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is in Four Books – what we believe, how we celebrate it, how we live it and how we pray it – only one book is morality.

Having reduced faith to propositions, and the propositions to moral ones, step three is to reduce morality to one department such as sexual morality or social justice. So often I hear Catholic schools, agencies, ministries and groups talk about their passion for the social teaching of the Church but it seems to be dislocated from Catholic faith and worship and the rest of morality. But as the Australian Bishops’ document Living the Truth in Love points out, while Catholic social teaching is one of the best developed and helpful areas of Catholic morality it is only one area: in addition to the ethics of politics and society, there is the ethics of economics and business, of respect for life, of scientific research and healthcare, of sex, marriage and family, of communication and education, of ecology, of religion and so forth. These other areas of morality, like the other areas of faith, are as important as social justice: indeed, social justice can only be fully understood and achieved with these other aspects of life.

A fourth and final stage in the moralisation of Christianity is reducing social justice to its less-demanding requirements. We can, for instance, wag fingers at governments, international agencies, the Vatican, the rich, big business – but what about ourselves? What does this teaching say to me? Does it challenge my securities, self-indulgence, ungenerosity, or is it just a way of feeling good about myself when I campaign, a bit, on this or that, that doesn’t really demand very much of me?

In the world of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, therefore, the ‘good life’ is about being a nice, friendly, easy-to-get-along-with, trying-to-be-successful person. Not too religious: a nice cross is fine, but don’t talking about it or live it too openly. Doing some good things is great, but avoid the God talk, the evangelisation, proclamation, sacraments, kneeling and stuff. Just be nice to people.

M in MTD is for moralistic; T is for therapeutic. This spirituality is not about repenting or being saved from sin (what’s that?), not about religious laws like keeping our Sabbath holy by going to Mass (is that still a rule?), not about saying prayers, building character or basking in God’s grace (I’m graceful enough). No, it’s about feeling good, being secure, avoiding tensions within yourself and with others: this god is there for you when you want to get stuff off your chest, this spirituality makes you feel better.

Thirdly, MTD is deist. It’s god who creates the world but then leaves us alone to get on with our lives without too much interference. This deity gets involved only if we ask him or her or it and only on our terms. No three-personal creator-redeemer-sustainer God this, speaking to us through the prophets and the Church’s magisterium, dying for our salvation and rising for our hope, making demands like ‘love me and keep my commandments’. No, this deity is the vending machine god (when we want something), the parachute god (when we need help), part-Batman’s Butler and part-Cosmic Therapist, always on call, ready so we can lie back on our couches and walk out feeling better.

Christian Smith argues that young people in Western countries are adopting MTD wholesale. Many mix their spiritual drinks, with Christianity, Islam or Atheistic Secularism as the spirit and MTD as the mixer – the tonic or coke. Most often MTS operates as a parasitic faith on Christianity. Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ youngest op-ed writer, recently published Bad Religion: How We’ve Become a Nation of Heretics. He tracks the decline of mainline Churches in the US over recent decades and concludes this is not so much due to aggressive secularism or other alternative religions catching on, as due to Christianity itself evolving into a kind of DIY, “create your own Jesus” religion, after the fashion of Deepak Chopra, Joel Oesteen, Oprah Winfrey and the self-help movement.

Douthat is being deliberately provocative when he calls Americans heretics, but he has a point. Heresy is the picking and choosing approach to religion and it’s very powerful in youth culture today: the tendency to take those bits we find comfortable and resist the rest. Now, we Christians know about heresies: we’ve had more than most through our history; but uniquely with respect to this one there has been no robust response. We clearly need some sort of counterculture to this, or better, some truly pro-cultural, pro-human, pro-all-that-we-can-be effort to encourage young people to conform themselves to the whole Gospel, the whole Catholic package.

Some have described Blessed John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict’s joint project as precisely this: a ‘positive’ or ‘affirmative orthodoxy’, one that isn’t about wagging fingers moralistically at others or picking and choosing the easy way out for ourselves, but rather one that embraces the whole Catholic faith, delights or rejoices in the beauty, goodness, sheer fun of the faith, and brings it into dialogue with what’s best in our world today, seeking to ensure there is no disconnect between faith and life. If these commentators are right, there are countless young souls out there being ensnared by a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that stunts them spiritually, anaesthetises them to the radical, joyful and exciting adventure of a life that is filled with saying Yes, fiat, to God’s plan in each of our lives.

2. MTD as under-development

Some of you may have seen a few episodes of the 7-Up series, a sequence of documentaries that has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were seven years old, the traditional ‘age of reason’. There have been eight episodes so far, one every seven years, the most recent with the ‘children’ now aged 56. The series has received much praise over the years and has had many imitators. One is an Australian imitation that tracks a select cohort of kids and takes snap-shots every seven years. Rather than beginning at age seven, however, the Australian study begins with 21-year-olds: perhaps we are slower developers! Yet many 21-year-olds don’t even regard that late age as the cut-off point for maturity. At the 12th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference it was reported that only 38% of Melburnians aged 21 thought of themselves as having reached maturity; 13% were adamant they had not yet reached adulthood; and 49% said maybe yes, maybe no. The report concluded that “30 is the new 21”:

Traditional markers of maturity, such as moving out of home, completing university, gaining permanent employment, marrying, parenting and first home ownership, now take place in the late 20s, early 30s, or later, if at all. The idea of age-7-Up being when people can make spiritual life-and-death decisions seems impossible; even 21st birthdays are times for far-from-adult ‘schoolies’ behaviour. Sociologists following this trend talk of a “kidadults” phase from teens to early 30s! The Vatican was on to something when it made 16-35 the range for World Youth Day.

Modernity’s long-extended adolescence is a period of keeping options open, putting long-term decisions on the backburner, and enjoying a childlike freedom in pursuit of fun. In our Sunday Gospel tomorrow (Mk 9:30-37) Jesus will put a child in front of us as an example. What’s that about? Was he recommending an extended childhood and adolescence? Is Jesus a thoroughly modern lad – drinking, sleeping in and playing computer games until he was 30, which is why we hear nothing about him between the ages of 12 and 30 in the Gospels! Is this His plan for us?

I doubt it. In Manning Up: How the Rise of Women is Turning Men into Boys Kay Hymowitz laments the extended adolescence of modern men. “Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure,” she explains, “the single young man can live in pig heaven — and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank … But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimise men’s attachment to the sand-box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There’s nothing they have to do. They might as well just have another beer.”

It’s not only a boy problem. Look at smoking, alcohol abuse (especially bingeing on mixers), party drugs, recreational sex, mutilation, body image problems and the like and young women have their issues too.

Is this what Christ had in mind when He pointed to young people as models? No. Christianity did teach the world that childhood is a precious time and that young adults need particular formation. It invented a three-phase system of education that has now become more or less universal. It insisted on certain responsibilities of parents and older members of the community towards the young and vice versa. It invested huge amounts of its energy into orphanages, schools, work with youth and, of course, youth ministry. But it has never supported the idea of an extended adolescence in which people are kept emotionally and spiritually stunted, seeking only their own pleasure, habituated in non-commitment, and looking to be supported in this by their parents and community. Nor has Christianity ever recommended joining an extended moral childishness to very adult activities such as sex, warfare, drugs and the rest.

As we contemplate in thought, prayer, dialogue and action how best to serve and draw into service today’s Catholic youth, we must appreciate that we do so in a society that offers them all sorts of technologies, opportunities and ideals, some very good, but also promotes a false spirituality and does not help them mature well. It sells them short in many ways, not least in saying they are not up to much, except in athletics or modelling where youth sells. Too many voices in our culture suggest that young people today lack idealism, are unwilling to sacrifice for a cause, are only interested in passing pleasurable experiences. Such will be true only if we present only such aspirations to them.

3. Prognosis and Prescription

The Gospel offers more. The young teach us imagination and trust, humility and prayerfulness. But they too must be helped to grow up well, to cease being spiritual midgets, to break out of the ‘sand pit’ and take their faith seriously. We must bring them to a mature freedom, not of self-serving or arbitrariness, but freedom for excellence, a freedom in the pursuit of the good and true and beautiful for themselves, their loved ones, their Church and world.

Youth ministry is, then, about helping people grow up in a society that too often stunts them emotionally and spiritually, or sells them short in other ways. It helps them enjoy their present phase of life as a phase of formation and service and, of course, fun. It allows them to identify their gifts and weaknesses, build on the gifts and manage or heal the weaknesses, and be all they could be and should be. And that is not just for the future: as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have often pointed out, youth is not just a period of prepping for adulthood when at last we do the Christian thing, but of already doing the Christian thing in a youthful way, as well as preparing to do it in new adult ways.

Most of you know me from World Youth Day 2008. I’m lucky now to lead a young, fast-growing, ethnically diverse and still quite pious part of Australia. We’ve got about 90 youth groups and ministries in Parra at the last count and more on the way. So WYD continues to bear fruit in all sorts of ways, including our ACYC and this convention and all the things you do. I realise that not all young Catholics are into these things; I guess it’s maybe only 1%. If we can raise the proportion of full-on Catholic youth from 1% to 2% and help many of the others get a bit more connected with Christ and His Church, we’ll have achieved a great deal. Of course the real therapy for youth culture will be to convert it all to Christ and wholeheartedly: but that might take a little longer!

As Youth Ministers offering not just symptom relief for our culture but real cure for some of its ills, we need to be focussed on prognosis, that is life after youth ministry: getting young people ready for the next phase of life, connecting them to parishes, groups and ministries, habituating them in attendance at Mass and Confession, growing them in virtue and holiness, drawing forth the unique gifts each brings to the building up Church and society, readying them for life as saints on earth and in heaven. With such help the prognosis is very bright.

The treatment we offer must be more far-reaching than the various groups, events and activities we regularly organize. These mostly strengthen the already-believers, which is important, but don’t get to the should-be-Catholics. For them the best treatment option is called “new evangelisation”: hearing the Gospel anew. Youth ministry today has to be, at least in part, a kind ‘smelling salts’ for the culture, waking people up out of unconscious beliefs and unbeliefs, sleepy immaturity and vice, and into a real, joyful, dynamic relationship with the God who is alive in them and through them. In her study The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy Colleen Carroll concludes that young people are agents of Church renewal in our time, that they are on average more orthodox than the previous generation, that they will be courageous and charitable, faithful and flexible, but above all mission-minded. In Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice Dean Hoge sees similar signs of hope and similar challenges for building Catholic identity in our youth. So my prescription for young Catholic Australia is the Gospel, whole and entire, presented in creative ways that draw our young people to that full health we call ‘the Kingdom of God’, so they take possession of the Church as their own, its apostolates as their projects or God’s projects through them, with them and in them.

4. Conclusion: Prognosis after Treatment

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” says St Paul, “and again I say: Rejoice. Let everyone see your forbearance, for the Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but always make your needs known to God in prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:4-7) There, my friends, is the treatment that Youth Ministry offers: cultivating forbearance in faith, bringing fun and deeper joy, ameliorating adolescent anxieties, teaching ways of prayer and thanksgiving. And the prognosis after treatment for young Australia is this: the promise of a peace beyond all understanding, the peace of Jesus Christ, the peace that cures and ameliorates and gives health and hope and every cause for rejoicing.

Aren’t we blessed to be part of that?! Thanks be to God for each one here, spiritual paediatricians for our youth culture, midwives for a new generation of apostles, martyrs, missionaries and saints of the Church.

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ACYMC: Spiritual Dynamite!


By Philippe Dulawan and team

It was with great anticipation that the day began, a really early morning, blurry eyes and skipped breakfasts. We arrived nice and early and were amused with these selective automatic sliding doors, with people waving madly to try to get them to open. A good morning chuckle, the simple pleasures of life.

The sacredness of the occasion was instilled in us through a traditional aboriginal cleansing ceremony.  A great sense of stillness, with the spirit moving to fill each participant with a gentle calm before a massive wave of buzz was to hit. Many of us had come to nourish ourselves spiritually as turns out physically as well (they had amazing scones). So what better way to start the day than with a sacred mass, celebrated by Bishop Ingham the Bishop of Wollogong our hosts.

After this wonderful celebration we shared morning tea and met our fellow youth ministers from around the country, each state represented.  It was with a great smile, energy and enthusiasm that the Parramatta youth leaders mingled and enjoyed fascinating conversations with our peers throughout this great south land. The sense of encouragement was evident in everyone who were like busy worker bees harvesting the spring flowers with a vibrant cross-pollination of ideas, faith, solutions and funny stories from our ministries. It such a great site to see 350+ other youth ministers working towards the same goals, sharing our pain, successes and dreams, all working for the kingdom.

The smooth running, audio visuals, guest panelists and speakers were all inspiring. This sense of support from our Church was present and on show for everyone to embrace. To see messages and plans from the Bishops, the different dioceses from around the country and other peers in similar situations was a truly heart warming sight to behold.

This energy was then channeled into practical workshops, were leaders in individual fields imparted us with invaluable knowledge from years of experience. Moving from the grand visions of vibrant youth, immersed in faith, these workshops provided the practical ideas of how to achieve this.

As dinner approached an even greater sense of celebration overwhelmed us, as we enjoyed dinner  with our new found friends in Christ. We contineud to bond and form new relationships and networks with some great entertainment and the launch of an exciting event the National Youth conference of Australia in December 2013!!

Some personal highlights were smiling, singing and dancing to Fr Robert Galea music! What a very very very happy priest who got us all on our feet to some classic hyms that we could try out in mass; One Direction “What makes you Beautiful” and Taio Cruz “Dynamite”!! All for the Glory of the Lord! Whilst this was going on a Catholic moshpit had formed, jumping for joy as ”God does not make Rubbish”. To add to this exuberance, when Dynamite was playing we and some friends from the Wagga Diocese got Bishop Ingham to “Throw your hands up in the air” on the dance floor, he didn’t quite go “on, on, on, on” but he definitely did “let go” and “light it up like its dynamite”. In a word (or two) today was some “Spiritual Dynamite” and there’s two days to go!!

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