by Fr Roberto Ubertino & Fr Nicolaie Atitienei
A conversation has been going on in church circles since statistics revealed that in Orthodox churches throughout North America young people tend to leave the church around the age of 16. This has been also our experience here at St Silouan. There arose with this observation a feeling of grave concern in trying to understand this phenomena among those who are responsible for shepherding the community here on Broadview. While it is hard to address a North American problem, we can look closer to our home.
Over the years, I have tried to strike up a conversation with whoever would talk to me among the youth who left the church. What I have learned so far is that there is not just one reason. Frankly, no reason that would say to me, "Yes, the church failed this person and they had no choice but to leave." The reasons tend to be, for the most part, not well thought out, or more importantly what I would consider a free, personal decision. My sense is that for the most part, it's a circumstantial. The loss of faith is not so much a because of a crisis in that person's life but rather the consequence of a slow, imperceptible wearing-away and ultimately loss of the faith - something like being exposed to low-grade arsenic over a long period of time.
What is this slow, imperceptible loss of faith caused by? Patriarch Bartolomeos recently spoke about the "None" movement as being the most challenging of our time; especially among our young people. "None" refers to "none of the above," religions. It is a turning-away from all faiths without really taking the hard road of a committed atheistic life. It's a kind of soft atheism that still allows you the comfort of some kind of spirituality.
This soft atheism is much in vogue and almost everyone seems to be attracted in some way to it. Certainly, this slow erosion of true faith is nurtured in all the institutions our children are part of. We need to find a way to answer to the challenge that the "None" movement is. Part of the "None" phenomenon is that it teaches all of us that the church has nothing to say that is relevant to our life. For example, we have tried to have Bridges where reflection on common social problems were given a space for freedom of thought, freedom of information and freedom of expression, something that is becoming more and more rare for our youth to be exposed to - but with little success as far as interest within the parish demonstrates.
The other big factor in the erosion of faith is financial. Yes, we need money. The present social system is oppressive to most families and individuals. There is also more to this. We value money as a way to initiate our young people into adulthood, i.e., responsibility. Father Nicolaie reflecting on this commented "We value money in the way other more "primitive" societies had initiation rites". Getting your first job is the first step to becoming a man in our culture. Being an adult means, being independent. Some young people have confessed to me how they felt pressured at home to get a job when they turned 16. The reality is that today, in Canada, when a person gets a part-time job, it almost always will mean being absent from the Sunday liturgy. All parish events aimed at the youth become challenged by these other commitments. In particular, without the Sunday liturgy, their lives become easy prey to every kind of spiritual disease that is going around. Christianity is a faith that is meant to be lived in community. When we as parents encourage our children to make decisions about their lives that compromise this experience of regular church community life, we expose them to the inevitable reality that they will find themselves alone in what they believe.
This brings me to the last point. There is in our children a desire to be normal. As if normality was safe, sane and pleasurable. Yet, as the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn reminds us, "the trouble with normal is it always gets worse." The reality is that our youth are suffering more than ever with depression and anxiety, and are plagued by the temptations of drug addiction and suicide at an alarming rate. Our so-called normality is actually scary. This is where we adult Orthodox practicing Christians need to ask ourselves: are we also not trying to be too normal? Are our values and priorities the same as everyone else's? Is our use of time, mind and money "normal"? We are not called to live in a religious ghetto, but neither are we bound and defined by the values of our present society, which is softly atheistic and radically non-religious. Christ has freed us from the need to be normal, and opened us up to the possibility to really know his Father, to love and be loved, and not just for a day but forever. Can we witness to our youth that money is not the same as being responsible? Can we not teach our children and youth that you can volunteer at the Mission and not be paid and still be a responsible person? Can they hear from us that there are other, more important values and realities that we as Christians are actually gifted to live. Not only to live for our own sake, but also for everyone else who is seeking to be so called "normal" and who ends up suffering beyond measure. So is there anything that we can offer of positive towards this challenge? YES!
We offer many varied opportunities to our youth to grow in the church.
The grace to experience liturgy within the context of a daily lived community life and mission in the world.
The opportunity at any age (younger the better) to come and serve the poor and learn first hand Orthodox mission life. We have three dedicated youth really focused on this ministry.
The training in our leadership program that begins this February.
Opportunity to live in community and away from home at Lorumel.
In the situation where financial necessity is a real concern we are committed to try to find paid work within our community for the youth who need it so they don't have to leave the church to find work in their teen age years.
Encouragement to consider diaconate, priesthood and lay missionary work as Sisters and Brothers of Mercy as a life choice.
Can we witness to our children our choices that manifest hope in the goodness of life, that take delight in the joy of the liturgy and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the community of the Church? Maybe we won't end up having lots of money, and maybe we will be called fools by the "normal" people, but we will give society the light and the flavor that it so desperately seeks and lacks.
Christ is baptized
In the Jordan!