Religion is no pyjama party

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

It is a commonplace that the mainstream media just doesn't "get it" when it comes to covering religion. Even so, every so often something so embarrassing makes it to air that one suspects it was made entirely without adult supervision.


That may well have been the case last Saturday with CTV's newsmagazine 21st Century (the youth-oriented version of W5). The program was so extraordinarily obtuse that mere incompetent reportage could not possibly explain it.

The program was ostensibly focused on the religious landscape of youth in Canada — with the promise that surprising things are afoot. Indeed. The majority of the program was given over to exploring Wicca, repeatedly ballyhooed as the "fastest-growing" religion in Canada. How so? My brother recently got married, so his household is growing faster than the world population, having doubled in just one year! Wicca is now up to 25,000 adherents we were told, which would put this "fast-growing" phenomenon at about 3% of the number of people who attended World Youth Day with the Pope last year.

The comparison is apposite, because the program also featured two young Catholics, a woman from Vancouver and a Toronto man who had entered, respectively, the convent and the seminary. In the former case, the WYD experience was a decisive factor.

What unites Wiccans and our new vocations? Perhaps young people doing unusual religious things? Actually, freakishness was suggested, but not of the equal-opportunity variety. The Wiccans, we were told, were very responsible, cheerful folk, carefully adhering to the "discipline" of ceremonial incantations and spell-casting rituals. As for Sr. Antoniana, who left behind her family, and Ed Curtis, who left behind his girlfriends, they were just a touch weird, illustrated with plenty shots of weeping parents and frequent questions about sex.

CTV introduced us to a coven of teenage witches, giggling through a slumber party as they fielded questions on Wicca theology with all the sophistication for which the adolescent mind is renowned. Not to worry, we were assured that contemporary witchcraft is the heir to a millennial pagan tradition, even "older than Christianity." As for Christianity itself, we were told that Jesus was "apparently celibate" and the Church got around to priestly celibacy around 1600 or so.

In the upside-down world of CTV's religious journalism, Christianity is the slightly curious novelty, while Wicca is the laudable tradition. Young people embracing lifelong dedication to worship of God, service to the poor, and yes, chastity, are subject to skeptical scrutiny, while dilettantes who prance around a fire before donning their pajamas to gossip about cute boys are portrayed as serious spiritual seekers.

All of which is a shame, because CTV missed an opportunity to cover what is truly remarkable on the youth religious landscape today — of which last year's WYD was a manifestation. Documented in a remarkable book published last year by Colleen Carroll, a former editorial writer with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, all across the United States teenagers and young adults are embracing the orthodox demands of the Christian tradition. Anecdotal evidence in Canada suggests that the same is happening here. But in the absence of a Canadian version of Carroll's The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, further investigation is needed. CTV might have profitably looked into that.

That religious affiliations and practice are in decline is the standard storyline. But there are important exceptions to that story, especially among future leaders who turn to orthodox Christianity looking for the meaning that success in other spheres of life has not provided. I serve as a Catholic chaplain at Queen's University and the Christian fellowships and campus chaplaincies are vibrant and more numerous than most other clubs. They don't get much attention — and 21st Century is a perfect example of why journalists are missing the story. "Young adults who have grown up in a culture that celebrates self-indulgence and sexual license and in churches that stress love of self more than service to God have seen the fallout of self-fulfillment fads," Carroll writes. "Families divided by no-fault divorce. Adults pursuing pleasure or careers with reckless abandon. Children left to raise themselves, making adult decisions — and adult mistakes — well before their time. The pendulum swings, and they find themselves captivated by Christianity's emphasis on self-restraint, sacrifice and commitment."

In that context, Sr. Antoniana and Ed Curtis are far more important cultural harbingers than are the slumber-party girls dabbling in spiritualism. Far from freakish, they are normal young people who have discovered that the wisdom of the ages offers, well, wisdom for our age too.

Carroll speaks about a generation "weary with secularism." For those with a hankering after ersatz spirituality, Wicca and other new-agey nostrums might fit the bill. But for those who want the real thing — accompanied by real sacrifice and real joy — the ol' time religion is the answer.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Religion is no pyjama party." National Post, (Canada) 10 December, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House at Queen's University.

Copyright © 2003 National Post


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