Empty Churches: Marianist Conference Focuses on Where All Young Catholics Have Been

(CNS Photo/John D. Kelly, courtesy Irish Catholic)

By Anna Weaver
Catholic Herald of Hawaii

About 90 people filled the Mystic Rose Oratory at Chaminade University in Honolulu on October 9 to hear Marianist Father James L. Heft speak on the theme “Empty Churches: Where Have All the Young People Gone?”

The answer? The factors are many and Catholics should not lose hope for the younger generations, according to Father Heft.

In his engaging 50-minute lecture, the priest used frequent anecdotes from his 60 years as a Marianist and research done at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (IACS) at the University of Southern California.

Father Heft, who co-authored a 2021 book on disaffiliation seen from an interdisciplinary perspective, launched IACS in 2006 and is its president emeritus and professor of religion Alton Brooks.

“The best picture I have in my head of what we have been going through easily for 50 years is nothing less than a tsunami, a tsunami that doesn’t come in a burst but just keeps rolling,” the father said. Heft. “It’s deep, it’s a bit difficult, it’s exotic. It is not easy to identify the reasons for disaffiliation.

He pointed out that much of the focus on the dwindling numbers of Catholics ignores the growing numbers of Catholics in Africa, South America and other regions outside of North America and from Europe.

Statistics also showed that Catholics retained their members better than the mainline Protestant denominations.

Secularization has changed but has not ended the power of religion, Father Heft said. People practice a more private form of faith today, and politics now has more influence on religion than the other way around.

Father Heft also spoke about the isolating and addictive qualities of social media that can cause people to replace in-person relationships with online relationships that make them feel lonelier.

The depth and flexibility of her religious tradition are essential, Fr. Heft said, and they mature together.

To the largely older crowd, the priest said, “Some of you are worried to death for your grandchildren, whether they have been baptized or not. I would say don’t be so worried, but radiate joy and beauty. This will attract them more than anything else.

“I recommend that we be careful not to assume that media coverage touches on the deeper realities of life and draws attention to the importance of practice and membership for growth in the Christian life,” he said. Father Heft concluded. “We need to be careful about the use of social media, affirm the compatibility of science and Catholicism, and suggest thoughtful ways to read the Bible.

“I believe that Catholic communities that do not promote spiritual experiences, that only teach abstract ideas and hold meaningless rituals, continue to contribute to the growth of disaffiliation.”

Marianist Father James L. Heft speaks at Mystical Rose Oratory at Chaminade University in Honolulu Oct. 9. (HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

After a short break, a four-person panel shared their takeaways from the conference. Panelists were Andrew Ancheta II, Activities Coordinator, Chaminade University; Melissa Ching Benjamin, Chaminade Board Member; Katie Gaitan, high school English teacher at Sacred Hearts Academy; and Father Vincent Vu, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Kailua.

There were discussions about the spiritual hunger of young people, “deepening” our faith, and how to create spaces for young people to have the freedom to explore their faith.

At the end of the event, Father Heft received the Mackey Award for Catholic Thought, given to the speaker of each year. It is in honor of Chaminade’s first president, Marianist Father Robert Mackey.

As the event was in overtime, the organizers postponed questions until the end of the program.

Known as the Mackey Marianist Conference until 2021, the annual conference is the largest opening address for the Marianist Center of Hawaii each year. After being broadcast live for several years, the event took place in person and online on October 9.

The Marianist Conference is sponsored by the Marianist Center of Hawaii, Chaminade University and St. Louis School. Organizers describe it as fostering “an inclusive dialogue about Catholic thought and Catholic responsibility.”

Topics in recent years have focused on racism, climate change and synodality.

Angela C. Hale