John Scarano, director of campus ministry since 2003 at John Carroll University, provided insight into “Faith on a College Campus: Where the Church Meets the World” during a recent presentation to the First Friday Club of Cleveland.
“We’re campus ministers, not catechists,” Scarano said. “We’re actually more like missionaries. We believe, we want to be seen and to be noticed,” he said comparing the concept to the theme song from the popular TV show “Cheers,” where one of the lines is “Where everybody knows your name.”
He credits his staff and graduate assistants, noting that without their support, he couldn’t do what he does.
“The world has never been more divided and angry. Kids don’t want to go out into the world,” he said. His remarks mesh with those made by Washington, D.C. Cardinal Archbishop Wilton Gregory who said recently he’s never seen the United States bishops so divided in his 38 years as a bishop.
Scarano said shared some startling statistics that show most current college students don’t read newspapers and most didn’t grow up in a household with two parents. They’re also not religious.
“They are lonely. They have little interaction and communication isn’t meaningful,” he said. They are overwhelmed with the amount of information and the choices facing them. “They are terrible at making decisions,” Scarano said. Also, they don’t trust institutions.
He cited a 2018 Pew Report that showed of the 30 million former Catholics, 75% left the Church by age 24 and 50% joined other Christian denominations.
More recent research conducted by Springtide reveals that young people feel the Catholic Church is judgmental, hypocritical and plagued by serious leadership issues. They leave the Church because they are disillusioned, cynical, politicized and polarized and say they don’t need the Church to be patriots and good people. They also dislike rigid rules and say the Church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings.
The “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, are a large and growing segment of the population.
These trends are visible at JCU, Scarano said, where for the first time in its 135-year history, most students don’t identify as Catholic. The percentage dropped from 32% to 23% . Also, “25.6% of students at John Carrol identify as ‘nones,’” he added.
Scarano surmised most likely were baptized, “but something happened and we have to take note.” He said Generation Z, those born 1997-2012, are keeping the faith, “but don’t expect to see them in church.”
Campus ministry is a marathon, not a sprint, he said. “Our role isn’t to protect the faith, but to help others get closer to God.” He said young people don’t need to hear that they’re sinful for not going to Mass and confession. Instead, they need to hear that God loves them. “We need to touch hearts, to move students,” Scarano said. “We need to provide a safe place for young people to ask questions.”
He said young people are eager for justice, they want to be more inclusive and collaborative. They worry about things like climate change and the environment; they are passionate about learning when they believe it is relevant and they often communicate with symbols and images (emojis).
Scarano talked about a conflict that arose on campus between two groups of students – one being the more traditional Catholic students – over kneeling at Mass. He was able to get them together in a room to talk about their differences. “Nothing was resolved, but the ‘standers’ stay in the back,” he said.
“Students may not understand the Creed at Mass, but they light up when talking about an immersion or a mission trip,” Scarano said. Pope Francis said we should be in a permanent state of mission and must reach out to the “nones,” he added.
Scarano cautioned there are two approaches to avoid: “Catholic lite” which assimilates to the world that anything goes and “Terrorist Catholicism” in which the world is even and things are stretched to the middle.
We need to see things differently, he said, sharing a story about how Jesus never met a prostitute, he met a woman who needed love because he saw her with different eyes.
“Is the Church going to die? Not a chance,” Scarano said. “But it will change. Our mission is not to shape this generation, but to be shaped by them. It’s a real call to humility.”