As a high school English teacher I have the opportunity each and every day to interact with an interesting yet complex group of people. Teenagers are battling identity issues, emotional swings, physical development, and hormonal rushes that often lead to, among other things, self-awareness questions. Young adults have a tendency to approach these sensitive, defining moments alone for fear of the perceived judgments of their peers. Often times questions maybe asked in the form of an internal dialogue, What’s wrong with me?, or Why doesn’t she like me?, or Why can’t I look like the muscular, ripped NFL football player in the magazine ad?, or Why am I not ready for a physical, intimate relationship like some of my friends are? Parents are working hard at raising their children to love who they are and accentuate their talents praying their children will be okay in a sometimes cruel world. Teachers are pushing their students to achieve higher success rates each time they walk into the classroom hoping for a successful future. Mounting pressure both from external sources and internal forces are pushing and pulling our teenagers to the brink of exhaustion, anxiety, and succumbing to peer pressure.
I realize that we all survive those teenage years and many of us go on to live happy, successful, and fruitful lives. We have found ways to properly process the baggage we packed when we were faced with the many internal challenges of our impressionable years. As part of the wide range of emotions and living up to the expectations of teachers and parents lies an even deeper, more important element of the lives of teenagers. In the confusion of physical, emotional, and intellectual maturation teenagers are often battling the perpetual internal questions of faith and spirituality.
Last spring I was involved with a group of high school students at our Catholic church, coordinating a performance of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. I encouraged students from our public high school who I knew enjoyed the art of acting to participate in this small, somewhat informal performance. Word spread fast among this tight knit group of students that I was looking for potential actors. The students, of course, eagerly, and quite effectively, participated in another opportunity to share their passion and interest. It was NOT mandatory the students who participated were members of our Catholic church. In fact, my vision was to make this experience ecumenical in our community by involving as many people from all of our local churches I could. There were adults and young adults alike from the various Christian churches in our community participating in this project.
As I spent time with these students away from the public classroom I found them to have inquiring minds well above academics. As we sat around before or after our informal rehearsals, I fielded many questions about my faith and spirituality which led to in-depth discussions about religion in general. One of the student actors actually hung around long after the actual performance on Good Friday to talk to me about his questions and his wavering faith. In fact, I could sense his reluctance to leave due to his need for spiritual clarity. I was humbled to be there for his experience as I knew God had opened that door.
This young man provided an eye-opening experience for me. Surprisingly, living in a small community does not always present the opportunities for faith-sharing, especially for young adults. I sense there is a ‘dead-zone’ between the efforts parents are making in helping their children in terms of spirituality and faith prior to middle school and the point that teenagers leave the safety of their home to begin their independent lives.
Do we have adults in our communities who are passionate about their religion, about their faith? Are those passionate adults willing to show their vulnerability in faith and open up dialogue with young adults? Recently, Desiree was talking with a young man in his late 20’s who claimed, during the impressionable years of his youth, he never witnessed an adult passionate about the Catholic faith with which he was being raised.
Certainly I understand that faith must be taught and modeled at home first, however I would argue that young adults are not always going to be willing to make themselves spiritually vulnerable with their parents. Teenagers perceive their parents as having high standards and expectations. Why would they want to question their parents regarding the faith they are practicing? Yes, they should question and wonder out loud, but often they don’t. Teenagers, ultimately, don’t want to let their parents down.
What are we doing for the young adults in our communities to help them in their faith exploration? I am devoutly Catholic and passionate about my experiences in practicing Catholicism. I am willing to have those tough conversations with teens because, through my reading of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and my heart being open to God’s calling and His miraculous influence in my life, I believe I can provide insight and experience.
The most important element in our lives is our relationship with God. So much of the world pulls us apart from this divine, intimate relationship. Beyond teaching our students reading, writing, and arithmetic isn’t it the responsibility of our church ‘elders’ to provide opportunities for our youth to explore spirituality? Sure, we offer religious ed classes, but are the students who have questions welcomed to examine their faith with people they perceive as safe, passionate, and non-judgmental?
The spiritual growth of our children can not be neglected. I would argue it is as important as anything else we teach. I will share my passion for my faith and my deep seeded beliefs with those who are interested. The interested just need to know there is an outlet for their growth.