Bishop Shares Insights on How to Reach Young Adults in the Military

Bishop F. Richard Spencer, second from right, at international conference of Institute for Religion and Peace.

Bishop F. Richard Spencer, second from right, at international conference of Institute for Religion and Peace.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA – How to bring the Gospel to young adults who treat religion like life insurance—something good to have, especially in an emergency, but not a moral compass for daily living? That is one of the biggest challenges facing military chaplains the world over, according to His Excellency, the Most Reverend F. Richard Spencer, Episcopal Vicar for Europe and Asia of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS-USA).

Today, Bishop Spencer called attention to this challenge in a presentation to nearly three dozen bishops and other Catholic leaders from 26 countries throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas, all gathered in Vienna for the annual international Conference of the Institute for Religion and Peace. Headquartered at the Military Diocese of the Republic of Austria, the Institute was established in 1997 to promote social and scientific discussion of current developments in international security and politics.

Bishop Spencer noted that “emerging adults”—people between the ages of 18 and 23—comprise a substantial segment of the world’s armed forces, including the U.S. military. He said that ministry to this age group represents “the most significant challenge to the practice of our Faith as Catholics within the military environment.” The question is: how to reach them?

The bishop cited recent extensive research by Dr. Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The research found, among other things, that, due for the most part to postmodern relativism and skepticism, young adults tend not to believe in absolute authority or truth. The research also revealed that while religion is not a “threatening” topic to the millennial generation, young adults are largely “indifferent” toward their faith or what distinguishes it from other faiths.

Based on these findings, Bishop Spencer painted a disturbing picture of what he called “the dark side” of emerging adults today, characterized by confused moral reasoning, excessive consumerism and materialism, addiction and habitual intoxication, sexual promiscuity, and disengagement from civic and political life.

Bishop Spencer said a list of needs developed during a young adult round-table, hosted in June by His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, provides a roadmap for how to develop effective pastoral care for emerging adults in the military. He said that a key element to remember is that young adults in the military are generally looking to get away from the installations where they are assigned, so offsite pilgrimages and other trips are an excellent way to bring them to Christ.

The bishop provided a number of other observations, including the following:

  • Young adults in the military are seeking mentors both for their military careers and in the area of faith.
  • Young adults in the military are looking for peers who want to learn more about the Faith. Since it is not a normal topic of conversation they are finding it difficult to meet peers who are willing to discuss faith.
  • Due the mission-focused, high tempo of military operations, young adults in the military are often distracted during Mass and when praying while thinking about long lists of tasks that are competing for their attention. They need help learning how to put these lists aside for a moment in order to hear God’s call.
  • Young adults in the military find the early morning Sunday Mass times challenging. Sunday is perceived as a catch-up day—catch up on sleep, catch up on errands, catch up on all the assigned tasks that did not get accomplished during the week.
  • Young adults in the military find living in a military-industrial environment both challenging and depressing (especially while deployed for long stretches on warships).
  • Young adults in the military want somebody to relate to; they want lay leaders who are well trained, who are similar in age, and who can talk to them about the faith.

Bishop Spencer said the critical task for Catholic pastoral leaders is to answer the questions: Why belong to the Catholic Church? Why believe? The bishop said that in developing their ministries, pastoral leaders should:

  • demonstrate the difference between authentic living and excessive consumerism;
  •  translate the Gospel in current cultural settings;
  •  personally invite young adults to participate in Church activities—it’s not enough to post announcements or send email, text or Facebook messages or e-vites;
  •  explain the “who, what, where, when” of the Catholic Faith;
  •  remember that young adults in the military have lived life at its most extreme, and their questions about life and death, the meaning of life, and the intensity of war set them apart from their peers;
  •  help emerging adults discover who they are and where they stand on a good moral map;
  •  make known the opportunity for the sacrament of penance.

Bishop Spencer cautioned that everyone is different and young people are no exception, so care should be taken not to over-generalize these findings. “Diversity in religious outlook,” he said, “calls attention to the importance that our priest chaplains have to be ready to adapt when approaching and ministering to this particular segment of the Catholic community… We must discover ways to go meet them in the “market place” as Jesus did when He walked the highways and byways during his lifetime here on earth.”