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. Prologue
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My generation

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Baker, Leyland, Simmons, Meme

FOUR CATHOLIC STUDENTS ON FAITH, CHURCH, AND THE FACTS OF LIFE IN THE 21ST CENTURY.
AN INTERVIEW BY BEN BIRNBAUM

As classes were ending for the summer, four undergraduates sat in a meeting room at Lawrence House, there to discuss at BCM’s invitation a range of topics growing out of the first year of the University’s Church in the 21st Century initiative. In 2002–03, Adam Baker ’03 (above, far left) was president of the undergraduate government (UGBC) and a member of the initiative’s advisory board. He majored in theology and political science with a minor in music, and he is now serving in the South Bronx as a volunteer with Teach for America. Rachel Leyland ’05 (second from left) is an English major and history/philosophy minor from Colchester, Connecticut. She plays piccolo in the Screaming Eagles Marching Band, sings soprano in the BC Chorale, and was the UGBC’s director of religious affairs last year. Kevin Meme ’03 (far right) majored in economics and is now working as an associate at the Center for Retirement Research at BC. He was an editor of the Catholic student newspaper Crossroads and a member of the Church in the 21st Century advisory board. Grace Simmons ’05 (third from left) also serves on the initiative’s advisory board; she is a political science and philosophy major from Skaneateles, New York.

As students, what kind of grade would you give BC’s Church in the 21st Century initiative for its first year?

Adam Baker: I would give it a B+. We need to focus on getting more students involved. I would say probably between 1,000 and 2,000 students participated over the year.
Rachel Leyland: I give it a B+ as well. A lot of the lectures were over the heads of undergraduates. And I think that deterred students from going.
Grace Simmons: It’s hard to get students to go to a conversation on “what the Second Vatican Council meant to me.” I’m looking forward to a focus on renewal in the second year and a tie to spiritual programs, because I think students will be apt to want to go to events that offer something for personal growth.
Kevin Meme: I give it a C+. Before we can discuss post– Vatican II specifics, a lot of students need to know what Vatican II is. Many students are on a very basic level of trying to understand Catholicism. I also think that panel discussions aren’t appealing to students. The most popular programs for students were when one speaker had an opportunity to put forth an idea that you could grasp and think about.

I’ve heard it said that Catholic religious education since Vatican II has been a failure. What’s your sense of this? Do you know less about Catholicism than your parents knew at your age?

Simmons: My name is Grace, and I know less about Catholicism than . . . [laughter]
Leyland: I definitely know less than my parents or grandparents. I had catechism classes for six years, but basically they taught me to be nice to other people and that I was worth something. And I didn’t go to a Catholic high school, so I had my first theology class at BC.
Baker: I think I know more about Catholic theology than my parents knew at my age. I’ll always remember a story they tell about being in third or fourth grade, and one of the priests put on an audiotape of crackling fire and told them that this was hell, and it’s where they were going if they did certain things. I think I have a fuller understanding of what Catholicism means than they had at my age.
Meme: My parents and grandparents learned a great deal about Catholicism, but without any questioning. Hey, they were Catholic—why would you be anything else? When I went to a Jesuit high school the lesson was: Here’s what the Church teaches, and here’s why. Now you’d better figure out why it’s meaningful for your life. Perhaps one of the problems for most college students is that we haven’t gotten a reasonable explanation of what the Church teaches, so how can we talk about how it’s meaningful in our lives?

I’m afraid I do have to bring up Vatican II again, because as Grace intimated earlier, it was the subject of a lot of discussion at BC in the past year—questions of what it meant and whether it worked. So what does Vatican II mean to you?

Baker: To me it means a revolution in the Church that looked to change the structure, reduce the power of the hierarchy, and be more inclusive of different cultures and people. I feel like a lot of changes haven’t been fulfilled. I think people didn’t really know how to handle the changes when they occured.
Leyland: For our generation, Vatican II pretty much means the time when people stopped eating fish on Fridays.
Simmons: Vatican II set up a huge openness to culture within the Church, and I don’t know if people knew how to deal with it. And I think that might be a reason for some of today’s challenges.
Meme: I think a lot of my peers view Vatican II as the process that got rid of ridiculous and archaic practices that the Church needed to get rid of. I see it as kind of a revolution, a chance for the Church to say, This message is not outdated. A council is important. It’s not something that just happens and is done; it’s the climax of all this discussion that’s going on, and then the council drives the Church forward into some kind of new era.

I’ve been told by people who ought to know—some of the Catholic chaplains, for example—that this scandal is pretty much a yawn for Catholic students at BC, that you don’t feel nearly as shaken as your parents’ generation by what has been revealed. Is this true?

Meme: The generations have a different view on sexuality. I think some of the older generations are shocked, and I think our generation is not shocked. Also, our generation has an almost more Protestant understanding of Catholicism. Religion is very much a more personal thing for them. They’re saying, hey, these priests have done this terrible thing, but my faith is my faith and it’s important to me, and so this scandal may be going on, but it’s not like I’m in a crisis. There’s no crisis for me.
Simmons: Kevin took the words out of my mouth. I think people in our generation are using the Church as a means to develop themselves spiritually. Whereas I think our parents’ generation has a list of things they expect from the Church. I do want to say that if it was your parish priest who was involved, the scandal could have a totally different effect on you. Because I think college students, when they think about Catholicism, always bring it back to their parish community.
Leyland: I think it’s more shocking for our parents and grandparents because they didn’t grow up with the sexual culture that we live in, but also because part of their job was to protect their children from sexual abuse. And I think it’s very disturbing for them to see that the kind of person they trusted to care for their children, to protect their children, could take advantage of children like that.
Meme: That’s an interesting point. For the older generation, the Catholic Church was a primary vehicle for protecting children, one of the things they could always rely on. Right? It’s pure, it’s unerring. And then this happens, and it totally rocks your boat.
Baker: I think that our lack of shock over the scandal has to do with the fact that we don’t feel as tied to the Church. I know my parents see their faith and the Church as one thing, but many college students see it as two very separate things. And I think that this crisis has driven a wider gap between faith and institutional church. And so a lot of people have just dropped the Church, and they’re looking for other ways to express faith and be faithful. I think that’s the divide we’re seeing and why our parents and grandparents are so interested in trying to renew the faith and some of us are not as interested. That’s why I personally think it’s important that the Church in the 21st Century initiative focus on the issue of handing down faith, getting college students to see their faith and the Church as something that you really can’t separate out.
Simmons: Can I make a statement? It’s upsetting to me that it may have taken a scandal like this to make the Catholic Church realize that it needs to do something more for its young people. Catholicism has been an enormous part of my development and my identity, and that’s why I think I have such strong reactions to what’s going on in the Church. Growing up, I would go to church on Sundays, and say, Where are all my friends who claim to be Catholics? And I know that they pray, so why aren’t they at Mass with their parents? Why am I one of the only few young people in this church right now? And what am I going to do about that? was one thing I always thought. Because if you’re tied to something, you want to do something to save it.
Meme: Well said. I’ve been in an ongoing discussion, both in a class called “Belief and Modernity” and with a friend of mine, about what the heck is the value of being in this organized religion? We believe what we believe, so why do we need to do it in a box called Catholicism? And one of the things that’s come out of the discussion is that the sacramental nature of Catholicism is so strong that you can’t really be a Catholic without going to Mass, taking part in these kind of very physical, very communal, celebrations. So I think our generation of Catholics errs in thinking that we can say: Here’s my relationship with God, here’s my relationship with the Church, and they exist in separate communities.

How much of this separation between personal faith and practice in your generation can be traced to differences you have with Church teachings on sexual ethics and practice?

Meme: I think a lot of Catholics in our generation ask: Who is the Church to tell me whether I can have sex with this or that person? My response is: Well, you’re a Catholic, aren’t you? To me the Church has teaching authority in my life in regard to sex. But also in my life, there’s a tension between what I would like to do sexually and what I feel is the right thing to do. What if I’m really in love with this person, I’ve been dating her for two years, and I’d really like to sleep with her? The Church, however, is saying: Wait—think about that. And based on experience and reading I’ve done, I think the Church’s vision is wise and conducive to creating ultimately good relationships, good friendships, good communities. But it’s hard to do, at least for people in our generation, because we think, hey, this is sexuality, it’s personal, it’s me.

I need to make this point: The Church is not saying “think about that”; the Church is saying “no.”

Meme: The Church is saying “no.” That’s right.
Baker: I think Kevin is right about heterosexual couples—the Church has wise things to say there. But some of the other issues, like the call to chastity and priestly celibacy, are things we need to reexamine because there are obviously problems. And I think the Church has done a terrible job ministering to homosexual Catholics, condemning people because of their nature.
Leyland: No one who knows the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality could say that they’re held by most young people today. Those teachings are countercultural. What you see in the movies and everywhere else does kind of desensitize you to what you’re seeing, and it’s not shocking now to think that high school students have sex, and their parents give them condoms. There’s a lot of open discussion about it, which is great because discussion leads to understanding in a lot of cases. I personally agree with the Church’s sexual teachings and try to hold to them in my life, but it’s very hard when everyone else you know is going another way, or maybe judging that what you’re doing doesn’t make sense.
Simmons: Like Rachel, I take seriously what the Church says about sex and think about how I want to apply that to my life. But I find that when my friends are talking to me about their sexual lives, I don’t condemn them. I say to myself, well, this is how I choose to be, and that’s okay for me, and I’m not going to force my views on them.
Meme: This is where I disagree with you. I’ve never thought that being married, having a family, or being able to have sex is some type of “right” for me. And so if the Church says “you can’t do some of those things,” that’s not imposing on my freedom. And as far as the call to chastity goes, one of the reasons I respect the Church is that it still stands in a culture that is anything but a call to chastity, and says that while this might sound ridiculous to most of you, it’s what we believe is right. Grace is absolutely correct when she says that our generation was brought up to think about “what’s right for me.” I’ve heard people say, “I would never get an abortion, but I would never tell somebody else not to get an abortion,” and I say that if you think it’s wrong, why shouldn’t you tell other people what you think? If someone tells me about their sexual life, I’ll tell them if I think they’re living it wrong and ultimately harming themselves.
Baker: My point about chastity is that I think it’s a very specific and personal calling. I don’t think, for example, that you should just require it of all people who feel called to God. I just don’t think that’s right. In terms of sexuality, I have a different view, which is that the sexual revolution happened a while ago, and while this caused people to become somewhat desensitized to sexuality, there has been a recent movement back toward responsibility, at least in our generation of college students.

But the movement among college students toward greater sexual responsibility is not a religious movement.

Baker: No, it’s not; it’s a call to personal responsibility. But there is something moral about it.
Leyland: I don’t see people being more sexually responsible because of a moral calling. People are being more responsible for health or practical reasons. They don’t want to get pregnant right now, or they don’t want to catch a disease. People are thinking about protecting themselves, not their souls or their moral values.
Meme: I agree with you. However, it’s funny to see this kind of counter-revolution, because the Church has been saying this all along. And it all comes back to tradition, to 2,000 years of faith and reason, of people thinking and talking about sexual ethics.
Simmons: This is a really sensitive issue for me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, or what it is. Being a woman could in fact have a lot to do with the way I think about this. But I think if my roommate was going to sit down with me and want to talk to me about whether or not she was going to have sex with her boyfriend, I would certainly encourage her not to do that, but I wouldn’t ground it in health or what I read in Cosmopolitan. I would ground it in moral and ethical reasons, that I feel very strongly about, that are derived from my religious upbringing.

The point has been made throughout this first year of the Church in the 21st Century initiative that American Catholics have arrived at a historic turning point, that things can never be the same again for the laity, for the bishops, for the priests. Given this shuffle in relationships, who are your models of Catholic life for the 21st century? Do you have Catholic heroes you look up to?

Meme: On a day-to-day basis I look to my grandfather. He and my grandmother have an incredible 50-year marriage. They pray the rosary every night, which is really cool. So I try to emulate him. But then I also look back to people like Ignatius Loyola for how to live a spiritual life, and I think the current pope is a model because he is both an unwavering Catholic and also very open, seeking reconciliation with all people, and very concerned with the issues of the day. And then I go down to a place like Chiapas, Mexico, and find that I learn about Archbishop Romero of El Salvador. All of these people have lived by truths that are out of time. They’re models of the 21st century because what Romero did 20 years ago and what Ignatius did 400 years ago are really the same thing. And they’re all living by values that stay meaningful.
Simmons: I have so much admiration for my mother, her commitment to Catholicism, and her ability to say what she wants to say and follow through. I also admire Mother Teresa immensely. Dorothy Day is another person I see as a model, because I have a great interest in social justice. A few of my professors have also been important to my development as a Catholic. Because of this crisis in the Church, Rachel and I did a seminar with Professor Brian Braman and Professor Kerry Cronin. And we met on Friday afternoons, six students and two faculty members, talking this stuff out. These are all Catholics who are striving to make goodness essential to who they are as human beings, and that’s what makes them Catholic models for me, and maybe that’s the saving grace for the Church.
Leyland: The person foremost in my mind is my grandmother. And I’d echo a lot of what Kevin said about his grandfather. She’s the most inspirational woman in the world to me because she applies her faith every day, to every person she comes in contact with. And to have someone like that in my life allows me to see how people who take what they’ve learned and apply it to their lives can do great things. It’s amazing. And some of my friends are my heroes, too—one from high school and one here at BC. I think they’re heroes for the 21st century because they’re doing it here, now, when it’s not easy. Back in the day, everyone had religion as part of their identity, and you didn’t have these questions and these choices—you were something, and there was no option. Today when you find someone who applies their faith to life every day, it’s like seeing a miracle.
Baker: Some of my greatest models for being Catholic have been Jesuits here. They’re so involved in the community, so obviously here to serve the students and work with the students, and I’d never seen people so passionately committed to serving a community before. It kind of shocked me. But I also think of Andrew Sullivan and Garry Wills as Catholic heroes, because they challenge the Church to become better. It’s important for me to see people who remain faithful but are able to challenge the Church in an intellectual way. I think it takes courage. And I think the challenge itself is important, because if these things are as important for our lives as we say they are, we need to talk about them and debate them.

Photos (from left):

 

Adam Baker ’03, Rachel Leyland ’05, Grace Simmons ’05, Kevin Meme ’03

 

All photos by Lee Pellegrini


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