The Crisis of Faith of Teenagers by Fr. Peter Geremia, PIME
From a talk to minor seminarians in the US … many years ago!
Are you losing your faith?
Last night I went to see a movie “A man for all seasons”, the story of Sir Thomas More who was killed for refusing the order of the King which was against his conscience. I had tears streaming down… maybe I am soft-hearted. That was a test of faith, a crisis of faith. Now I’m going to talk about another crisis of faith, your crisis of faith, the crisis of faith of teenagers.
Not long ago, you used to look like little angels. Maybe you loved to be altar boys or go to church quite often, you said your prayers well, you had moments of great devotion. Little angels with shining faces.
Well, look at yourself now: are you a little angel, or are you fast becoming a little devil? If your Mom heard some of the choice language you use, or some of the nasty things you have in mind and do, your Mom would be surprised. You may say “Heck, I can’t be a holy Joe, it is no fun, I want to be like the other guys…”
Do you ever feel this way? Prayer, church, that religious stuff is all right, but boring. Parents and priests bug you with their sermons, always the same stuff.
What is happening to you? Are you losing your faith?
Yes, you’re losing your faith or finding a new one. You’re going through a crisis preparing for a basic choice in your life, preparing for D-day, a turning point. Either you are coming to the point of conversion: finding a new faith that makes sense to you, that fills your life…or you are gradually losing interest in faith and all religious matters won’t mean much to you. Either you will find your way to the living God, or come to the conclusion “I want to live my life, religion is dull, it is not even human, forget it…”.
The crisis of faith of adolescence is the period when you work yourself up to this choice. It does not happen in one day, usually it happens between the age of 12 and 20. It can be very dramatic, a violent crisis, or just a gradual shifting or moving into one of the two directions.
What an age you are going through! It is called the age of decision and confusion, the age of ups and downs, of quick tears or hysterical laughs, the care-free age, the age when you do the craziest things… you scare everybody during this age, even yourself. A mother said, “Teenagers should be buried underground when they are twelve and dug up again when they are eighteen” Wouldn’t you like to be at the end of this process finding yourself a handsome young man sure of yourself?
I dare to say: you’re going through the age of opportunities, you are developing your new self, and you are also developing or discarding your childhood faith. You will end up with a new faith, or a dried out skeleton of a faith that was, a relic of the past.
When a child turns teenager, he breaks away from his happy, smug childhood, and he plunges into the unknown. He takes off on his own for the greatest adventure of his life. He sails full of dreams, searching for an unknown continent… Someone said that a teenager is “Columbus without America”, sailing on in the midst of hopes and fears. He starts breaking away from many things of his childhood, from toys and pets, and also from the faith of his childhood. Mom taught him well, but now at times he is fed up with all that stuff that he swallowed for years. If his Mom tells him, as she did for many years, “say you’re prayers, go to church” he may feel like yelling “I don’t want to pray, I do what I want!”
Parents may be shocked, “what is happening to my boy?” Well, he is starting his war of independence. Most countries went through a war of independence and they are very proud of it, can you also have your own personal war of independence? The rebel comes up in you, sometimes you feel the mad joy of breaking rules, or maybe you have the wicked desire of doing wrong just because others say that it is wrong. “I do what I want!” you may become very touchy like a porcupine, all needles…
Most sensible kids do not rebel against everything, they do not throw everything overboard and break all rules. They soon find out that they may be hurting only themselves. Sometimes, they miss the golden security of childhood; everything was clear and nice, sailing along in calm waters. Now you are shaken up by violent storms, sudden urges and moods. Sometime you feel so lonely and lost. You would like to have a friend, a guide. But you seem to be so far out of reach, how can anybody come close to you?
Well, young sailor, wandering on a treacherous sea, I wish you luck, I hope you find a star to guide you; something or someone pure and beautiful that shows you the way. Young Columbus, I hope you find your new land. I just wish you would not make your life more miserable and difficult that it needs be, I wish you wouldn’t waste too much of yourself.
What is happening to you? You are growing up, shooting up like weeds. You’re too tall for your pants and too big for your shirt. You change shape before you know it, you may wake up with a different face. Some kids used to be fat, roly-poly, suddenly they are stretched-up by some magic power. And there is more to it than what meets the eye; mysterious physical forces are exploding inside, violent bodily changes involving your nerves, glands, muscles, even your brain and skeleton. Sex organs take final shape, you may change your voice and the way you look. A pack of screaming bodily instincts or drives takes over in you, suddenly you may feel you can eat so much, or sleep for a whole week, or drink a river dry…
What do these bodily riots have to do with your crisis of faith? Simply this, you are so overpowered by your bodily drives that you feel with your guts and reason with your nerves, or believe with your stomach… Pascal spoke of “the reasons of the heart” but there are also the reasons of the body, those strong sensations, sometimes oppressive or exhilarating, one time you want to sing on top of your voice, then suddenly you feel like throwing up in disgust…
These bodily, or animal drives, invade your feelings, emotions, ideas and dreams, and also your faith. Much of your childhood faith is submerged by this flood, those clear ideas that made so much sense in the past are blown over. Now you wonder about everything: is God fair? Is He like Big Brother watching over you? Or like a friendly giant? Or a monster computer? Often you don’t understand what priests and books tell you about God, what count is the way you feel, the mood you are in.
How can you master your bodily drives and moods? This is the time for you to discover God in a new personal way and develop a personal faith that becomes blood of your blood, not only an external varnish. Actually, the bodily drives and feelings are marvelous gifts of God, but you must be able to handle them and not become their slave. Like anger or the sex drive may make you jump with sudden jolts, but you should learn to control all these raw energies.
Suppose you are given a new expensive camera, you may become so attached to it that you forget everything else. Or if you have a brand new car, you would go crazy over it, you would touch it as if it were alive. Suppose a beautiful girl comes to you, you can become very excited… Well, in time you will get used to your camera and forget that you have it, you will get used to your car and get tired of driving, and you may eventually get used also to girls and see more than looks in them.
Can you find a new faith?
The eruption of instinctive forces within your growing body cause raw feelings and strange moods. But these are the same forces that launch you into orbit, you set out on your own toward the unknown to discover and get hold of your new self, your new personality. You like to become independent, but can you be completely independent? Not quite. Being on your own, out of sight is great, but then waves of uncertainty splash over your boat and you find yourself so far out that you feel uneasy, lost, almost scared. Those moments of loneliness come and go, but they really get you, they make your heart pound… Then you look for someone, you are anxious to talk to someone. You hate to go back to your parents or persons in authority because it would be embarrassing to expose your anxiety to them. You prefer to open up with your friends, your peer group.
To be with a bunch of guys, have fun, have a riot, that lifts up your spirit. You wish to be in with the group, so if the group yells, you yell, if they laugh, you laugh, if they tell sick jokes, you tell sick jokes. Whatever the group likes or say or believe, you also follow them. Whatever the group does not like is retarded or stupid… You are not sure of many things, so you want to belong and make an impression, looking tough with the guys. If you are rejected, ridiculed, made fun of, you feel hurt. You can put up fights with parents and teachers, but when your group turns against you, you feel like a leper…
What tremendous influence of the group, the power it has over you! Is that good or bad? A proverb says “Tell me what kind of friends you have, and I tell you who you are” the group can lead you to use the filthiest language and do disgusting things… But the power of the group can also be used for something good like games, projects, working together or studying together.
Can you find a group of great guys who have all the fun in the world and still have generous hearts, a pure smile and deep faith? Then instead of losing your faith you will find more and more to it, you will find more joy and love and friendship. You can discover Christ as your best friend. He grew up like you, he rejected the fake faith of the religious leaders of its time, He revealed the real God as a loving Father, full of mercy and compassion. If you keep on talking with Jesus, he can show you the way to become like Him and do what He did… That’s the new faith
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