Justin or Jesus?

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Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Someone said recently, and I’m sorry I don’t remember the source of the quote, “if your kid knows more about Justin Bieber than Jesus Christ, you’ve got a problem.”

Now, if you’re over a certain age, about 12, for example, you might not know a lot about Justin Bieber, but in fact Justin’s about the hottest thing happening in the entertainment world right now. He’s a cute, sixteen year-old Canadian kid, a pop star, the heartthrob of just about every little girl in the world. But he’s not to be taken lightly – according to published reports, he makes about $300,000 for every one of his concerts. Not bad for a kid who, otherwise, might be delivering the morning paper to his neighbors.

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And this column shouldn’t be perceived as a rant against Justin Bieber – I don’t want to alienate the twelve-year-old readers of the “Catholic” (all two of them) – and Justin seems to be a nice kid, with great hair, a modicum of talent, and a boatload of personality. Thus far he’s avoided most of the pitfalls of instant stardom that have befallen other young stars like Macaulay Culkin, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few. We wish him well.

But the fact remains, if your kid knows more about Justin Bieber than Jesus Christ, you’ve got a problem.

And the problem is related to the state of religious knowledge and education in the world today. Perhaps you saw the well-publicized survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life. A poll of 3,412 Americans indicated the depth of the problem. While Americans often speak about religion with family and friends: Only 71% could name the place of Jesus’ birth; only 63% could name the first book of the Bible; only 54% could name the Muslim holy book; only 46% could name Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant reformation; and only 45% could name the four Gospels.

The Pew Forum survey quizzes Americans of every religious stripe, including atheists, on a wide range of religious issues, but I wonder if Catholics would fare any better in a quiz about our own religion, even on the fundamentals? I wonder . . .

Can you list the Four Gospels, the Seven Sacraments and the Ten Commandments? What sacraments did Jesus institute at the Last Supper? Can you explain what happened on Pentecost? Who was the first Pope? What are the four marks of the Church? What does the Immaculate Conception refer to? What’s the difference between the Ascension and the Assumption? What’s the difference between limbo and purgatory? Can you say the Act of Contrition? When are Catholics required to fast and abstain?

And these basic questions don’t even touch upon the more significant moral issues of our day. Do you understand, and can you explain to others, the Church’s teaching about contraception, abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, marriage, and homosexuality? After all, these issues come up frequently in everyday conversations, and as a Catholic you’ll surely be challenged by your friends and neighbors.

All this points to the importance of sound and comprehensive religious education. We speak so much about evangelization these days, as we should, but evangelizers have to know the product they’re selling. How can we speak about the Catholic Faith with any sense of conviction if we don’t understand it?

Those involved in religious education in the Church – in Catholic schools, CCD programs, the RCIA, adult education, and youth and campus ministry – have a very important role to play in this regard. I am so grateful to all those who generously share their time and talent in these essential ministries. We should all be grateful. The Church would be very different, completely rudderless, without the dedication of these professionals and volunteers.

Nor should we forget the important role parents have in teaching the faith.

I remember receiving a letter, when I was in another diocese, complaining about the impoverished state of religious education in the diocese. “My children aren’t learning their prayers, the sacraments or the Ten Commandments,” wrote the unhappy mom.

I wrote back saying that while there’s always room for improvement in the catechetical programs of the diocese – in schools and religious ed programs – if her kids didn’t know the basic prayers, the sacraments or the Commandments, it was her fault, not ours. After all, in presenting children for baptism parents accept the responsibility of being the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith. How often these days parents neglect their vocation as teacher and even more, how counter-productive it is when parents send their kids to CCD, or even a Catholic school, and never practice the faith themselves, ignoring even the most basic responsibility of attending Sunday Mass and receiving the sacraments.

I know that in this busy, busy world in which we live – a secular, material world to boot – it’s difficult for families to spend time together speaking about important things, religious things. But there’s no reason in the world why parents can’t spend a few minutes a week with their children – especially when the kids are young – praying with them and teaching them the fundamentals of our faith. Of course that presumes that parents know the fundamentals of the faith, but with a little refresher, and with the assistance of simple catechetical materials widely available today, parents could handle the task.

So, do your kids know more about Justin Bieber than Jesus Christ? Ask them, and hope for the best.