Transforming the quarter-life crisis

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Young adult Catholics questioning their faith might just be the next generation of saints.

By Guest blogger Michael J. Sanem

Right now, millions of young Catholics in America are going through a "quarter-life crisis," looking for direction in life, struggling to find opportunities, and most likely, questioning their faith as well. We do no favors by pretending that adherence to dogma, a new missal, a parish fundraiser, or a pre-Cana marriage course will help them find the unique way in which they are called to serve God in the world.

From our tradition we know that some of our greatest saints emerged from crises transformed because they encountered God in the unlikeliest places, outside of church, and often in the suffering of the marginalized.

The young St. Dominic nearly gave up his theology studies when he encountered people starving on the streets, telling his superiors, "Would you have me study off dead skins when people are dying of hunger?" He rejected the pomp of bishops and was inspired by the radical, austere lifestyle of the heretical Cathars, who had been condemned by the church for false beliefs. He founded the Order of Preachers, a radical new religious order dedicated to finding, living, and preaching the truth wherever it was encountered.

Twenty years later, St. Thomas Aquinas joined the order. Inspired by Dominic's spiritual intuition, he developed the most influential and comprehensive Christian theology from the pagan philosophy of Aristotle as preserved, interpreted, and translated by Muslim scholars.

St. Francis, too, found God in an unlikely place: prison. After a year in jail and a couple failed attempts at secular success, he began to pray earnestly for direction, until he saw Christ in a leper and heard the call of God to "rebuild the church." When his merchant father publicly sued him, Francis stripped naked and declared himself a beggar, until the bishop, deeply moved, embraced him, wrapping his cloak around the devout, if not slightly eccentric young man. Five years later, the young Francis started the Order of Lesser Brothers, also known as the Franciscans, renewing the entire church and the European continent along with it. His spiritual successor, St. Clare, radically changed the monastic rules for women, insisting on absolute poverty and simplicity, even in the face of papal condemnation.

Through their crises, all of these saints renewed the church because they refused to settle for the status quo when it came to living an integrated spiritual life. While the liturgy and the sacraments inspired their work, it was only brought to fruition outside the church walls: Francis of Assisi was able to kiss lepers because he saw Christ in the rejected ones, and Dominic could embrace the lifestyle of heretics because he knew that God's truth is not wholly contained within a rigid belief system.

In the Catholic Church of the 21st Century, I often wonder if an eccentric young man like St. Francis would be accepted by the bishop, or if St. Dominic would pass the litmus test for orthodoxy in an increasingly paranoid Church. In a time of clerical elitism, papal royalty, and immense human suffering, Francis and Dominic rejected wealth, status, and comfort and insisted on walking in the radical footsteps of Jesus.

If we truly want to help young Catholics struggling through their quarter-life crises, we as a church will encourage them to do the same, and embrace them when they do.


Guest blogger Michael J. Sanem is a young adult pursuing his master's degree at Catholic Theological Union. He mentors youth through CTU's Peacebuilders Initiative, and he also blogs at Where there is despair.

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Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.