We covered the component regarding parish statistics fairly well. Although I have been serving our parish for only five years while the youth minister was born and raised here, I was able to share what I could regarding our kids' parochial involvement--which is considerable, though greater breadth and depth is always in order.
Eventually the dialogue turned to the age-old question of "How Have Things Gotten This Way and Whatever Can We Do About It?" I know that we neither solved all the world's problems nor created any, but we were both able to share worthwhile articles on the subject of outreach to the "millennial" generation.
She brought an article from "Group," a print and online publication of youthministry.com. Fortunately the article was available online for free, so here it is for your edification. The author, Rick Lawrence, was summarizing the observations of Neil Howe, described as a "secular prophet" of generational theory whose insights can help youth ministers understand their charges.
As a priest for the past 9.5 years, two of which were spent as a high school teacher, I have been exposed to this "millennial generation," to its assets and liabilities, its challenges and opportunities. To some degree, this generation is the product of ours, especially in light of our (GenX's) relatively poor formation in virtue, spirituality, and religion. We may be the parents of these kids--or, perhaps, their older siblings, uncles/aunts, sponsors for Baptism and/or Confirmation. Many of us will be developing our own religious sense alongside these children. As they prepare to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, we will be invited to (re)discover both the content and the commitment of our Catholic faith.
This was the article I offered, from CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It suggests that, when it comes to the percentage of young people who are faithful to the Church, the situation is not much different from "olden days." The tendency to romanticize the past is afoot. But the informational and social opportunities provided by the Internet are certainly unique, and have had their effects on this generation, to be sure.
Halfway through this "Vocation Awareness Week," I bring my own story to bear upon the matter.
For most of its history my hometown of just over 3,000 souls had eight Catholic churches (Latin and Eastern Rites), though not all had a resident pastor. I got to know many priests and seminarians of diverse temperament and interests, and spent a fair amount of time with them--at daily and weekend Masses, parish functions, going out to lunch and dinner. I played the organ for several churches throughout high school, which further increased my exposure to priests on and off-duty. Without exception, they treated me with respect and compassion, were human and humorous, shared their knowledge of and devotion to the Faith, and encouraged my interest in joining their ranks.
Given the examples whose company I so eagerly kept, I recognized the awesomeness of the priesthood. At the same time I questioned my spiritual and emotional fitness for the task. At the earliest possible time (the beginning of my senior year of high school) I began the application process in the hopes that, if this were my vocation, the Lord would help me to grow into it. Providence continued to supply sound instructors and formators throughout my nine years of seminary, and I continue to draw valuable guidance from priests and laypersons alike. I am humbled to be a brother and peer to the priests I have known, and I would be humbled and amazed if a young man should list me among the influences that led him to consider the priesthood.
My story, such as I have summarized it above, speaks to one of Mr. Howe's assertions regarding the current generation, to wit, "...Salvation-by-works overshadows salvation-by-faith." The "Group" author amplifies this point further: "...Millennial kids are far more interested in the what of religion (what can I do?) than the who or the why of religion. They learn best by doing, not by contemplating." I have to say that the who and the why of religion were huge selling points for me. While I could wrap myself up in a blanket of theory and sleep forever, the apostolic activity of the priesthood has grown on me. Sick calls, hospital visits, teaching in our elementary school, hearing Confessions, engaging engaged couples, helping bereaved families select Scripture readings for a funeral Mass, attending finance council/parish council/school board meetings--this and more is a diocesan priest's daily bread. Prayer and reflection on the truths of our Faith is not this bread's butter, but its yeast.
As a priest so favorably influenced by priests he knew as a child, I understand the importance of personal interactions with young people. I admit that I have not fostered as much personal interaction as I had experienced in my youth. The clergy abuse scandal has had a considerable effect on all parties: priests, children, and parents. The decreased number of clergy and seminarians (in our diocese, anyhow) is another factor, along with the increase of duties handled by the priests we have. Nowadays it seems easier/safer for teenagers interested in the priesthood, consecrated life, or any other activity to conduct online research than to pal around with a real live example. That's a shame.
But for the moment I have no better solutions. Fidelity to my daily duties, with a visible smile and an encouraging word, is always a good start.