Year for Priests: The “cool” church

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

. . . and to this the student responded, “You can’t do that.  You don’t ask questions like that . . . you just don’t.” (The written word doesn’t capture his emphasis and shock, but believe me it was there).

You would have thought he was responding to something illegal or forbidden, but as it turns out, he was responding to me – a priest asking him why he believed in God and why he is Catholic.

Life at the end of the school year takes on a decidedly different pace.  We are all itching to get out and enjoy the warm sunny days that are now finally upon us.  In order to avoid the discipline problems that usually accompany “traditional” forms of class work, I decided it was time for a new, more interactive, approach.

Using provocative videos I have collected over the years, podcasts such as those featured on my own site, Attuned, and interactive multimedia websites such as PBS Frontline, my students and I have become faith-based analysts of society.  The media creates the forum for discussion:  provoking, engaging and providing a compelling, multifaceted world view.

Together my students and I discuss the questions they are usually never allowed (or given the opportunity) to ask:  “So, how do we know we are right?  How can we say Muslims, Jews or Buddhists don’t have the right path to heaven and we do?”  “If the church is so concerned about the poor, why doesn’t the pope just sell some stuff and take care of them?”  “Are people really born gay?”  “Why do I have to go to Mass when I am more prayerful outdoors?”  “Why didn’t God just make everyone believe?”  “If God is so merciful, why does he send people to hell?”

For three weeks, my public-speaking students learn how to articulate their beliefs, see the value in another point of view, and facilitate some of the most controversial topics of their age.  Perhaps because I am priest, our discussions inevitably circle back to Catholicism.

You may be surprised just how many teenagers, even in a Catholic context, can rattle off tenants of the faith, without accepting all but a few of them.  Many remain unconvinced, not because belief is illogical, but because it is seemingly inauthentic.

After a documentary on media and marketing, we had a long discussion on what is “cool.”  To the teenage boy, “cool” pushes the limit, and is always relevant to what is most important.  Using their own definition, I eventually asked if being Catholic was cool?  In their minds, Catholicism should be cool because it stands outside of the accepted norms in society, but much to their frustration, God, as mediated by the Church, stopped being relevant and cool a long time ago.

According to my students, both God and the church appear “old,” but they admitted that our discussions were changing their perception.  As they elaborated, we all concluded that “old” results from a lack of relevance.  Cool is being able to discuss, understand, and feel like they are heard and able to contribute.  Cool is integrated, connected and diverse.

Of course, cool is also not the mainstream, but they concluded that if they really lived their faith, they would probably never have a problem being, by their own definition, cool.

Their challenge to me was quite clear:  The more discussions they have about their faith, the cooler it will become.  The more questions we ask, the more willing we are to let the youth speak, the more we connect our faith to our world – the more cool it will be for all of us.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May 2009 and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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