July 08, 2019

Made for Heaven

By Father Dave Pivonka, TOR *
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (c. 1432).
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (c. 1432).

Last weekend, like most weekends this summer, I stood in front of teens at a Steubenville Youth Conference talking about heaven and hell. Also last weekend, like most weekends, fewer teens came than I’d hoped to see.

Don’t worry; I’m not taking it personally. At the conferences, the workshop is offered at the same time as a workshop about dating. Ninety-five percent of the teens opt for the dating talk. The other five percent opt for mine. Which makes sense. Discussions about relationships naturally capture young people’s attention more than discussions about eternity. Nevertheless, last weekend, out of curiosity, I began my talk by asking my five percent why they came to my workshop and not the dating one. One young lady raised her hand. “I want to make sure I go to heaven,” she said.

Jokingly, I responded, “So, you think everyone at the dating talk wants to go to hell?”

The teens laughed, and I moved on with the talk. But I’ve been thinking about her response ever since. It’s unusual. Not because she wants to go to heaven; I think everyone at the conference wants the same. Rather, it’s unusual that she’s thinking about heaven at all.

Last year, a study by the Barna Group found that the percentage of Gen Z (those born between 1999 and 2015) that identifies as “atheist” is twice that of the U.S. adult population. The same study found that teens who do believe in God tend to disagree with their faiths’ teachings about sexuality. And even among those who practice faithfully, religion often takes a back seat to other priorities: school, sports, and, yes, relationships.

I’ve worked with young Catholics for over 20 years, and what I’m seeing now bears that out. Too many teens live in a world without consequences or self-reflection. Many treat God like an extracurricular activity, and religion like a shirt they put on just for Sundays.

Moreover, many teens I encounter—maybe even most—have been formed by the culture, not the Church. Twenty years ago, things that kids coming to our conferences would have thought were crazy, are now normative. I regularly meet young people who are engaged in their parish, attend youth group, attend eucharistic adoration, but who also have no issue with pre-marital sex, gay marriage, or transgenderism. They’ve become so inculcated by the culture that it doesn’t occur to them to question these behaviors.

This presents a huge problem, not just for the Church, but also for young people. They were made for heaven. But you don’t get to heaven by treating the spiritual life as just one of many competing demands on your time. You also don’t get to heaven by living a life contrary to the Gospel.

Franciscan University, the school I serve as president, is doing everything we can to change this youth culture. This includes sponsoring 23 Steubenville Youth Conferences, in 18 cities across North America, this summer. Over 60,000 teens will attend.

At these conferences, in every talk—even the dating talk—we help teens go deeper, to think outside their circumstances, outside their worldview, and start thinking with the Church. We want them to know that each one of them has an eternal soul, and the fate of that soul hangs in the balance.

As I tell them, the Evil One is real, and he wants nothing more than to pull them away from the life for which they were made—eternal life with God. That’s why they have to learn to be more reflective, not just about themselves and Church teaching, but about the music they listen to, the shows they watch, and how they spend their time. It’s all feeding their soul, and they will only make it to heaven if they feed themselves right.

We do the same for our students at Franciscan. As a Catholic university, we have a responsibility to form not just students’ minds, but also their souls. Our deepest desire for our students is to see them become saints.

That’s why, at Franciscan University, we teach our students what it means to be made in the image of God. We teach them the dignity and beauty of being made as a man or a woman. We root them in the unchanging teachings of the Church and call them to a relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We also feed them with the sacraments and nurture devotion to the Blessed Mother and the saints. This is the food their souls need, and it is our sacred duty to give it to them.

We can’t do this alone. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and if teens today are going to shift their focus away from the world and toward God, we need parents’ help. We need parents to stand firm against the culture that puts sports before God. We need parents to teach their children that actions have consequences, both in this life and the next; that doing one activity or job well, with integrity, matters more than doing many different activities; and that honoring commitments is more important than chasing after the next best thing. Most of all, we need parents to walk with their children on the journey that is the spiritual life, praying with them, sacrificing with them, and serving with them.

It’s not too late to reverse course. Not for young people. Not for any of us. But if we’re not thinking about where we’re going, we’re going to end up in a very different place from where we want to be.

Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, a well-known speaker and author, became the seventh president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in May 2019.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.