Deep into devotions
Some Catholic youths adopt, adapt more traditional rituals
By Peter Smith
JAN. 25, 2012 (www.courier-journal.com) - Light from a hazy dawn poured through the chapel windows of the hilltop monastery here as Christopher Huh of Louisville knelt before an altar where Communion bread was on display.
The 15-year-old St. Xavier High School student woke at 5:30 for his shift in an all-night vigil in which he and other teens prayed before the Eucharist, or Communion bread, which Catholics believe is the presence of Jesus Christ.
"It was very moving, just staring at the Eucharist, taking it all in, just digging deep within myself and realizing I'm not alone," he said. "There's someone there for me."
Huh and several other teens said the vigil was a high point of a recent five-day youth gathering at St. Meinrad Archabbey.
And their embrace of the vigil -- and of the daily Masses, recitals of the Rosary and prayer cycles at this historic Benedictine monastery -- highlight what several leaders of Catholic youth ministries see as a revival of more traditional devotions.
Sociologists haven't identified a conservative shift among Catholic youth as a whole, but those who work in Catholic youth ministries say that the style of devotion is changing for many of the most committed Roman Catholic youth.
In some ways, that style resembles their grandparents' piety more than their parents'.
They're recapturing some traditional devotions that faded after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which saw American Catholics switch from Latin to English, adopt guitar Masses and other new worship styles, increase the role of lay ministers and de-emphasize the Virgin Mary and the saints.
"I think we got to the point in the church like, 'Let's throw out all this old stuff,' " said Betsy Dunman, the theology department chairwoman at Trinity High School in Louisville and an adult participant at the St. Meinrad conference. "It's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People just needed a deeper theological understanding of what's going on. It gives a new life and fullness to the old thing."
St. Meinrad, which also has a seminary program for Catholic clergy and lay ministers, offers the youth program each summer under the name One Bread, One Cup.
Its three five-day sessions, which ended earlier this month, drew 255 high school students from area states, along with 112 adults and 22 college interns. St. Meinrad's first youth conference in 1995 drew 40 students and 12 adults.
The youths studied why and how the Catholic Mass and other liturgies are structured the way they are.
"I never really knew the real purpose of serving (Communion), all the symbols behind it," said John Sohl, a DeSales High School junior who volunteers as a Eucharistic server at St. Luke Church in Louisville. "I didn't even know what everything was called that we put up there."
He said the "life-changing" conference is going to prompt him to teach others what he's learned and to use a book of daily monastic-style prayers.
While the recent St. Meinrad conference showed some return to pre-Vatican II traditions, it was far from a throwback to the Catholicism of the 1950s.
Virtually all of the worship was in English, though some choruses and chants were in Latin. Organ accompaniment was joined by piano, drums, trumpets -- and guitars. Even many of the quieter chants were composed in recent years, rather than in the Gregorian era.
"The young people I've brought here over the past four years have embraced traditional forms of worship, but then rendered those traditional forms into who they are now," said Rick Binder, who works with teens in the Diocese of Salina, Kan., and annually brings some of them on a 600-mile drive for the St. Meinrad conferences.
"They pray the same prayers their ancestors prayed, but with their signature," he said.
The conference occurred as the Roman Catholic Church reasserts some of its traditions this month.
Pope Benedict XVI has approved wider use of the traditional Latin Mass and put renewed emphasis on the Catholic teaching that Jesus created the papacy as head of the universal church.
But overall, "if you do random samples of Catholics, you don't find a move back to the conservative," said Dean Hoge, professor emeritus of sociology at Catholic University of America and author of the book "Young Adult Catholics."
"People are more individualistic than we've seen in the past," he added. "They're less concerned about obligations to the church. … That doesn't mean their Christianity is weaker, but some of the older elements of Catholicism are weaker."
Young Catholics as a whole are less likely to regularly attend Mass than older generations.
Young Catholics are more likely to put more importance on helping the needy and following one's conscience than on following church teachings or participating in the Eucharist, according to polls conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.
On the other hand, they are more likely to believe in Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist and to be more satisfied with their church leaders than their parents.
Those who work in Catholic youth ministry say they're seeing a return to traditional devotions among those who do show up regularly at church and other services.
At Bellarmine University, students gather to pray rosaries and novenas (cycles of devotional prayers) and walk the stations of the cross, re-enacting Jesus' suffering and death.
Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, director of Bellarmine's campus ministry, said she and others who came of age after Vatican II felt that traditional devotions were "done by rote with no understanding of what was going on."
"It felt like, 'It wasn't me, it wasn't my prayer,' " she said.
And many Catholics then were attracted to how their Protestant friends were raising their hands in exuberant worship or praying to Jesus in a conversational style.
But "this generation finds piety intriguing," said Sullivan. "They didn't grow up with the rote prayers."
Such examples abounded at St. Meinrad.
Shortly before they began their quiet, all-night vigil before the Eucharist, the youths cheered each other loudly in the auditorium of the monastery's former college.
They performed in a talent show featuring such upbeat gospel tunes as "Oh Happy Day" and the jazzed-up version of "Salve Regina" from the Whoopi Goldberg movie "Sister Act."
And the emphasis on social outreach -- a hallmark of the post-Vatican II era -- remained strong. The students raised $1,471 for Catholic Relief Services, which they promoted by wearing blue plastic bracelets and setting up informational tables.
"After this experience, I'm probably going to go out and do more action," said Huh, who already volunteers at a nursing rehabilitation center.
The Rev. Anthony Vinson, director of vocational development at St. Meinrad, said youths are taking these messages home.
Vinson saw one teenager carrying a book of monastic prayers in his shorts pocket while playing Frisbee.
"That says a lot," Vinson said. "It's not something you put on a shelf. It becomes part of you."