When I walk across the campus at East Tennessee State University, I sometimes wonder about how this generation of college students and young adults has experienced religion. Yes, they each have their unique experiences both positive and negative and these certainly fundamentally guide them but, as a whole, they also have some defining experiences. Two of these experiences are particularly negative.
As preteens, this generation witnessed 9/11 — a horrific and violent abuse of power and religion. This generation has also grown up in the midst of the clergy- abuse scandal — again, another horrific abuse of power. These events being held together, this generation has witnessed, in a defining and particular way, abuse of power in the religious context.
In light of this, I find Pope Benedict XVI’s audacious decision to resign from his ministry as the successor to St. Peter to be truly prophetic. The papacy is the quintessential symbol of religious authority and power in our world and I cannot help but wonder how his resignation is speaking to the younger generation. I do not presume to know the mind of Pope Benedict and I can only go on his own comments as to why he has decided to step away from the Petrine ministry and devote the remainder of his life to prayer and study. I certainly take him at his word, but I wonder (and hope) if the 85-year-old pontiff has in his heart a pastoral lesson he wants to offer the world and young people in particular.
By his resignation, Pope Benedict is offering a lesson that power does not have to control and that power can also be stepped away from for the interest of the whole and the common good. In this lesson there is also the recognition that there is value to humility and to prayer.
I think that this younger generation has a deep yearning to see religious people willing to step away from the trappings of power. Yes, there is an authentic role and need for power and authority in religion. Authority is certainly needed and I do not here argue against the authentic exercise of power to help grow the faith, but it must be recognized that power that is abused leaves deep and long-lasting scars and that power, by its very nature, can also create distance between those who hold power and those who do not.
One reason I think this generation yearns for religious authorities who can step away from power is because they are, in many ways, a generation without power. By stepping away from power, religious authorities can go and meet the younger generation where they are. It has been said that this younger generation of Americans will probably be the first to financially make less than their parents. It is not their fault. It is the cards that they have been dealt primarily due (in all honesty) to the greed and narcissism of older generations.
Theirs is a generation that cannot find jobs once they graduate college (partly because older generations are not retiring). They are weighed down by exorbitant student loans due partly to the fact that benefits afforded previous generations have not been passed down to them. They are not planning on social security being around once they retire. Many are facing unemployment or underemployment. One student recently told me that out of five of her friends who just graduated college, four have had to return home to live with their parents. If we as ministers can step away from the security of power, we can go a long way in meeting these young people where they are.
This calls for a creativity in ministry, because it means “going to” rather than “waiting for them to come to us” — which has been the dominant model in ministry for a long time. But it should be recognized that this dominant model is a model of power. When “they” need to come to “us,” a power dynamic is immediately set up.
We know how things operate, we know how things should be done in the church. In other words, we have the power and they do not. The Catholic Church is a church of weighty institutions — we have schools and universities, we have hospitals and far-reaching charity organizations, we have large and expansive parishes — these all have a role and they are not going away and neither should they — but we should recognize that sometimes the maintaining of institutions diverts energy away from the needed work of evangelizing and the very ability to go outside the walls of the institution.
We need to creatively think a space apart from these weighty institutions where we can meet and welcome this generation without power.
To find a space and a means to step away from this model of weighty institution and power means to embrace a form of evangelical poverty. It means to let go of control. I think, in my heart, that Pope Benedict is witnessing this for us. We need to be a more humble church with ministers inspired by an evangelical poverty and a missionary zeal. We can see to the needs of the weighty institutions but we do not have to be so weighed down by these institutions that we cannot do what the gospel demands.
We need the audacity of a Pope Benedict, who at 85 and at the pinnacle of church power and politics can step away from that very power and say, “God is calling me to prayer for the Church.”
Our young people — who are a generation without power — are watching.
Father Michael Cummins is Diocesan Vocation director and chaplain of the Catholic Center at ETSU.