By Michael Rossmann, SJ
It is not uncommon to dress up as literary characters for Halloween, especially in light of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, though it is probably less common to dress up, as two friends and I did one year in college, as the three brothers from my favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov.
Probably not surprisingly, I was picked to dress up as Alyosha, the monk and youngest brother. My friend acquired a cassock for me to wear for the role, and immediately after putting it on, I felt a flutter in my stomach.
At this point, I had told some close friends that I was thinking about the priesthood and others probably suspected it, yet wearing this cassock made me feel exposed; my discernment process suddenly seemed very public. At the same time, more than at any other college party, I was extremely conscious of how I carried myself. Even when this was just a Halloween costume, I felt like I was representing the Church.
This feeling has only deepened since joining the Jesuits, especially when I wear the Roman collar or when friends or others ask me to be the Catholic Answer Man. While playing such roles is intimidating and humbling, especially knowing my own imperfections, I am deeply grateful for opportunities to try to be a face of compassion for the Catholic Church. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when I participated in a semester abroad during which I was seen as “the religious one,” as most students were either atheist or agnostic, and my classmate Paul told me, “You’re actually the first religious person I respect.”
I have thought about this frequently, though I assumed that Paul’s experience of not respecting any people of faith was uncommon. However, reading an article by the Barna Group entitled “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity” sobered me. (Read more at www.barna.org). Barna Group studies the role of faith in America, and this article’s writers noted that among those Americans ages 16-29 who do not identify themselves as Christian, only 16 percent have a “good impression” of Christianity.
Researchers asked non-Christian young adults about 10 negative and 10 positive descriptions and whether these labels fit contemporary Christianity. Non-Christians were far more likely to believe that the negative labels described Christianity than the positive labels, with 91 percent believing that Christianity is “anti-homosexual,” 87 percent that it is “judgmental” and 85 percent that it is “hypocritical.”
Barna’s president, David Kinnaman, recently wrote a book entitled “unchristian” and noted his surprise in recognizing that these perceptions of Christianity were typically rooted in particular stories and personal encounters with people who call themselves Christian. Rather than stemming from spiritual defensiveness, Kinnaman found that young adults’ negative perceptions were resulting from specific “un-Christian” encounters with Christians acting hypocritically, for example.
I just completed giving a series of retreats for Catholic young adults throughout the Midwest, and I was inspired and humbled by the people I encountered. There are certainly young Christians out there not just in name but also in how they live their lives. These people should be the face of Christianity. But, the roughly 40 percent of young adults in the U.S. who do not identify as Christian have a far more negative perception of us.
I have always enjoyed the hymn with the line, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” though, sadly, non-Christian young adults today seem more likely to perceive us as being judgmental than loving.
This article is serving as yet another wake-up call for me to look at how I live in word and deed. I find this particularly relevant as someone who is seen by others as a representative of the Catholic Church, though the Barna study finds that many of the negative perceptions of Christianity do not simply result from statements of church officials, for example. Rather, non-Christians often form these perceptions from personal experiences with Christians. This can serve as further encouragement for all of us to live lives that embody that hymn. Hopefully, they will know us by our love.