“Not counting women and children, there were about five thousand men…” (14:21) reports Evangelist Matthew about the attendance of MEN at Jesus’ pastoral ministry events. This seems not the case in our current pastoral situation especially in rural Uganda. If Matthew counts church-goers the situation is just the opposite. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have failed to see even one young adult male below 30 years of age or a teenage boy at my Sunday liturgy in rural Busoga, eastern Uganda. I will not be surprised to know that the situation is similar in other rural areas in Uganda.
Then we tend to ask, “As pastoral ministers where we have gone wrong? What exactly we can do to get our teenage boys and young adult males to the Church? If this is the situation how can we get good vocations to married life? How can we find good husbands in our Christian homes, is it possible to find good candidates to priesthood and religious life? And more especially can we have good leaders at all?” Surely the situation is perplexing, worrying and pastorally defeating.
Experiencing this situation, at a crisis meeting with catechists and other responsible leaders questions are raised, “Where are our boys? What do they do when mothers and sisters go to church?” A good mother replies, “I tried telling my young son few times, but he is just stubborn he does not want to come to church, I have given up.” And another says, “They move around with other boys, playing games and looking for little money.” Yet another retorts, “My son is just not interested in what is going on here, but he is not all that a bad boy,” and he even adds, “but Father, you even make the liturgy interesting for youth.”
All right thinking and concerned parents want their boys to grow as virtuous men and be responsible at home and society. Church and pastoral community could be one of the good venues for boys to grow in maturity and learn matters of faith, leadership and social relationship skills. But we seems to be failing to offer them or just failing to get connected with our teenage boys and young men. The reasons could be complex and they remain unexplored.
One of the challenge would be making them understand that faith is worth exploring and it is vital for integral growth. Teachers and others working with youth know very well that it is not easy to form boys and engage men with an “easy faith”. They need rigorous and authentic examples to see and experience. There is no other way. We need to make our church “comfortable” for them suiting to their growing up needs. Then surely they will find faith and faith practices worth their time and interest. Too often faith that is communicated to them is dull and removed from their world. It is equivalent of saying, “Just do the minimum, this is what we have for you, if you still want to come, you come.”
Certain psychological and scientific studies reveal that atheism is a learnt behaviour and faith and belief are inherent in human beings. Thoughts of God or sense of divine is inherent in human being and it is waiting to be explored. Child development studies have also proved that if a child is not given knowledge of God in early childhood, as early as four to eight years it is almost impossible to instil it in later years. Church attendance is an important external manifestation of people’s belief in God and faith affiliation. If parents’ faith in God is firm and convincing they will surely instil them in their children. If it is shaky, they will lack skill in teaching about faith and their children will further deteriorate in faith.
Unlike formal learning in a school children are taught at home through lived examples. Best way of teaching children life-skills and family values are parents living them faithfully. Children learn to love the way spouses (parents) love each other. Children learn faith the way spouses trust each other. Loving couples also will love their children. In this context of love, love of God is imparted. A child that enjoys good relationship with parents will easily learn to relate with God.
In a developing country like Uganda as years go by youth face many challenges such as lack of educational opportunities, lack of employment and many other vices of modern age. A teenager who has not met basic needs and fails to find good role models will eventually give up faith. Having lost faith in life will also result in loss of faith.
It is a matter of fact that secularism is catching up with Africa at a high accelerated speed than Europe itself. Secularism entered Europe at a slow pace unlike Africa. It is also accompanied with materialism, consumerism and individualism. We cannot just blame it on western influence. Sometimes African young people, especially from African emerging cities are more “westernised” than people of the West. Perhaps we fast losing our culture or have never learnt our culture at all. Currently we have at least two generation of “lost generations”. This problem is heightened with other social problems such are urbanisation, urban migration, unemployment and others.
Social ills affect young people faster than any other section of the society. They are at the receiving end of the social problems and social ills. And they are also good reflectors of them. We could easily judge a society as per the attitudes and manifestations of their youth. In the same way young people’s expression of faith is also the manifestation of their life experiences and the way religious life is perceived and lived.
Now the ultimate question is how can we put God into this section of our society, especially the teenage boys and young male adults? The answers though seem to be easy and straightforward it needs the combined effort of various stakeholders of the society, parents, family members, teachers and school managers, priests and other pastoral agents. It has to start with the evangelization of the family. We need to look into the sacramental life in the family such as holy matrimony for the parents and good sacramental preparations when the children are prepared for sacraments.
It is a known fact that there is less or completely no catechetical formation for youth and young adults after they have received their confirmation and mugigi. This period can be termed period of “catechetical vacuum” where young people are left to pent for themselves in faith. If at all they come for marriage preparation, no more religious instruction is given to them. They are left to find answers for soul-questions often touching vital issues such as sexuality, marriage, and other human and Christian morals. When they get disconnected with the Church either they get discouraged or Church becomes irrelevant to them.
Besides parishes should involve youth in the activities of Small Christian Communities, parish council and other parish committees. Assigning young people with suitable responsibilities and giving a meaningful forum in parish life will surely build confidence among young people in the Church. Surely as Pope Francis says, ‘Church grows through attraction and pastors should learn the language of young people to connect with them’.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB