One of the overarching narrative cycles of the Old Testament is Israel’s struggle to live in accordance with the covenant. God formed a covenant with the people of Israel, but over the course of the history of the covenant, the Israelites would fail to live in accordance with the precepts or conditions of the covenant, and thus God’s wrath would come down upon them; then, once the people repented, God’s wrath would subside, and salvation would come about. These themes – our failure to live up to the covenant, the reality of Divine wrath, the need for repentance, and the hope for future salvation – are emphasized in a particular way in the prophetic texts. The prophetic books of the Bible were written between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., at a time when religious devotion within Ancient Israel was on the decline, the oppression of the poor and political corruption was rampant, all of which was followed by a period of political instability, which was seen as a manifestation of God’s wrath.
Those who led the Israelites down the path of sin and corruption – and thus destruction – were often seen as being particularly to blame. This is seen in the readings from this past Sunday, the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Times, particularly the first reading, taken from Jeremiah 23.  In this text, he directly calls out those who have led God’s people astray. God, speaking through the prophet, says, “Woe to the shepherds who scatter the flock of my pastures…Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish you for your wicked deeds.” (Jeremiah 23:1, 2).
This text, in its immediate sense, referred to those in power (political leaders, religious leaders, etc.) But, it could also apply to all who know better, who should serve as role models to others. Every time we act, others – particularly those who are searching for answers to life’s important questions, particularly with regard to what constitutes proper behavior – will start imitating your behavior. Those who do wrong thus lead others astray. The more powerful one is, the more influential they are. Thus, this message applies to those in positions of authority in particular. Yet, anyone who knows the proper way to act, but who, knowing that their behavior influences others, fail to act accordingly, will be held responsible for the evil that occurred in a particular way. The one who was led into sin will also be held responsible for their act, but a particular burden will be laid on those who led them into evil. We see this even in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8: St. Paul said that since pagan religion was false, and idols were false gods, the rituals offered by the pagans were meaningless. One was thus not committing a sin if, when invited to dine with a pagan, they were offered the meat of animals sacrificed to pagan gods, and they ate it. Yet, as many in the Church in Corinth were converts from paganism, some of them were weak in the faith, and thus may fall back into their paganism if they see their fellow Christians eating the meat sacrificed to idols. We should therefore try not to scandalize those who are in the faith: “But not everyone possesses this knowledge. … Be careful…not [to] become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:7, 9).
This can apply to any situation: do not scandalize or lead astray those who look up to you, those who are influenced by you, those who don’t know better. One group I am thinking of in particular is parents. Within the realm of Catholic theology and spiritual life, the clergy hold a special position: it was they alone who were given the authority to preach and interpret God’s Revelation; they alone were given the authority to define doctrines and be the final say in deciding the direction of the Church; and, most importantly, it is they alone who can administer the sacraments, whereby we receive the grace to live out the teachings of the Church and the Bible. Yet, our families are our earliest and most frequent contacts. Children, especially when they are young, are very trusting of authority figures, but particularly their parents. Parents are thus afforded the opportunity to teach their children and thus lay the basis for a good Christian life. They do not have the teaching authority of the Church, but they do have the duty and authority to learn the Bible, to learn Church teaching, so as to pass it on to their children.
Yet, we know that the Church is a mess. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), an organization at Georgetown University that collects information about various affairs affecting the Church, found that Mass attendance was, in many countries throughout the world, abysmal. In the period between 2005 and 2009, 60.3% of Brazilians self-identified as Catholic, yet only 44.8% of Brazilian Catholics went to church once a week or more. In the period between 2010 and 2014, 69.9% of Mexicans identified as Catholic, but only half went to church once a week or more. In Poland within that same time period, 92.3% of the population self-identified as Catholic, but only 54.9% of Polish Catholics went to church once a week or more. In Argentina in the period between 2005 and 2009, 75.5% of the population identified as Catholic, but only 21% went to Mass once a week or more. The most stark contrast was in Andorra, where, in the period between 2005 and 2009, 55.1% of the population identified as Catholic, but a mere 9.6% of the population attended Mass once a week or more. 
(As an interesting side note, this study found that some of the nations with the lowest number of Catholics had the highest rates of Mass attendance: Catholics in Zimbabwe, in the period between 2010 and 2014, only comprised 21.4% of the population, but 84.5% of the Catholics there attended Mass at least weekly; in Tanzania, in the period between 2000 and 2004, only 28.2% of the population self-identified as Catholic, but 88.5% of the Catholics there attended mass. In general, in countries where Catholics were the minority, there were more Catholics going to mass than one would expect given the general trend: in Romania in the period between 2005 and 2009, Catholics made up only 7.5% of the population, but 54.7% of Catholics attended weekly Mass, which was only slightly lower than in Catholic-majority Poland in that time period.)
How is it that Mass attendance could be so low in countries where Catholics make up such a significant part of the population, and thus Catholicism lays the basis for the general cultural ethos? The reason is caused by a series of interconnecting personal, cultural, historical, and ecclesial issues. But it seems as if they are setting up a situation for this cycle to repeat itself. The study notes that those surveyed were among the adult population alone. Unless something happens to shake up the youth, and move them to go to Church more frequently, they will see the adults not go to church, and follow suit.
This study was conducted over the course of the almost decade and a half since the start of the century. A pretty decent amount of the people born during and immediately before that period are now teenagers and young adults. And we can now see that the bad choices of their parents are starting to influence them. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, operating mostly in America, showed that only 39% of Catholics attend Mass once a week or more. As many as 40% say they attend Mass only a few times a month or a few times a year, and 21% say they attend Mass rarely or never. Things are not looking good among other Christians: only 33% of Mainline Protestants and 31% of Eastern Orthodox Christians attend church services once a week or more. The highest numbers were among Evangelical Protestants and predominately African-American Protestant communities, and even then only about half of their members attend religious services once a week or more. This is among the adults in general. Things get worse among the youth. Only 17% of 18-29 year old’s, across religious lines, attend religious services once a week or more, and as many as 26% say they attend religious services rarely or never. Only 22% of those who attend religious services once a week or more are Millenials, but as many as 33% of those who say they rarely or never attend religious services are Millenials. 
Things are even worse among the generation after Millenials. Titled “Generation Z”, they were born in the period between the late 1990’s and the 2010’s. In a 2018 study by the Barna Group of older members of this generation (more specifically, those between the ages of 13 and 18), only 59% self-identified as Christian, of whom only 17% self-identified specifically as Catholic. Although this is still the majority, it is significantly less than the previous generations (75% of Baby Boomers, and even 65% of Millenials, self-identify as Christian). But, most importantly, the study found that the number of atheists was increasing, with Generation Z having close to twice as many atheists as the past four generations (the Silent Generation and before, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millenials usually had between 5%-7% atheist, while Generation Z had 13% atheists). As many as 37% say that it is impossible to know for sure whether or not God existed.  Another source, commenting on this, said that Generation Z has no strong sense of overarching religious identity, and thus this generation was labelled “the maiden post-Christian generation.” 
Is it any surprise that when one looks at consistently low Mass attendance among the adult population in specific, or among the more general population, one is going to see this passed on specifically to the youths? Is anyone really shocked to see that young adults or teenagers are barely involved in the Church? A famous (or rather, notorious) survey by the Pew Research Center in 2010 of religious knowledge showed that religious people scored lower than atheists and agnostics, and of all the religious people, Christians were the lowest scoring.  The adults thus lack sufficient knowledge of the faith, and lack a sense of rootedness in the larger community. They thus have nothing to pass on to their children.
There is thus a sense in which those in authority are to blame, for not providing enough resources for parents to teach their children, or sufficiently teaching the parents when they were young. Yet, parents share in the blame as well: many have bought in, hook, line and sinker, to many of the modernist ideas that lead them to remain in their ignorance, and have done very little to counteract these trends among the youth. It is common to here people say: “I think children should be allowed to make their own religious choices,” or: “I will raise my kids as Catholics until their confirmation, after which point they are old enough to make their own choices.” To provide a counterpoint, we know that babies and young children, for example, have the basis for the ability to form rational ethical opinions from an early age (they can usually feel empathy and have some vague sense of fairness from an early age [Paul Bloom’s Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil provides some good information on this from both a scientific and ethical perspective]); yet, nobody says that, on account of this, children don’t need to guidance of their parents or authority figures to form their consciences. How much more is this true with regard to the truths of the faith, some of which transcend the capacity of the human mind to understand? We’re not controlling our children, forcing our opinions onto them or teaching them to be close-minded; rather, we are giving them the tools to make informed choices on spiritual and ethical matters.
Despite this, there is still hope. The responsorial Psalm was taken from Psalm 23, the opening line of which was, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” When looked at in light of Jeremiah 23, we can see that human shepherds have failed, but God is the shepherd, the caretaker, of all humanity, of all of creation, Who organizes and arranges all things in accordance with His Providence. No matter how badly humans fail, God will make use even of these failures to bring about His plan, which is intrinsically good. And even amidst the failures, there are still some parents, some churchmen, who have still passed on the faith to the younger generations. God will bring good even from this small seed, just as He promised in Jeremiah 21:5 to bring forth a righteous king, similar to King David, who will govern the land with righteousness, even amidst the failures of the leaders of that time.
- To read the readings for this past Sunday, see:http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072218.cfm
- The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “International Mass Attendance,” published 2014. Accessed on https://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/intmassattendance.html
- The Pew Research Center, “Attendance at Religious Services,” published 2014. Accessed on http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services/
- Barna, “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z,” published on January 24, 2014. Accessed on https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/
- Kelly Frazier, “Gen Z Is The First Post-Christian Generation,” in World Religion News, published on February 6, 2018. Accessed on https://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/z-gen-atheist-generation
- The Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” published on September 25, 2010. Accessed on http://www.pewforum.org/2010/09/28/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey/