The most beautiful and profound emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness…A human being is part of the whole…He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness…Out task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole (of) nature in its beauty.[1]                                                                 

Albert Einstein

Young people these days are experiencing what would seem to be a crisis of wonderment when it comes to religious faith due in large measure to the many ways in which this globalized, technology driven society has seemingly quieted desires to discover the world and sense the numinous. Creativity is often stifled by “innovations” designed to make life easier. In this “Google” generation, it seems that any question can be answered on the internet. More and more, the basic questions of life and reality are being answered in purely scientific terms. Popular culture and movies portray youth as indifferent to such visually enrapturing wonders as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls and preferring instead what is currently trending on their handheld devices.

Couple this with the data on youth and religion in the past few years, which revealed that “nones,” a group comprised of those persons who list their faith as “unaffiliated,” is the “fastest – growing religious demographic in the United States.” Equally troubling is that 36 percent of those surveyed are young millennials (born between 1990-1996). More specific to the subject population, a recent study of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shows 63 percent of young Christians surveyed left the church between ages 10 and 17. According to CARA, here are the most popular sentiments given by young people for choosing another religion or leaving the church their parents attend:

  • “Because I grew up realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”
  • “As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find that the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.”
  • “Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
  • “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”
  • “Need proof of something.”
  • “It no longer fits into what I understand of the universe.”[2]

     Despite this, young people are drawn to films that feature superheroes and villains, fantasy worlds of adventure and survival such as the Hunger Games, Star Wars, the Insurgent series of books and movies, and dark worlds of horror and the zombie apocalypse in series such as “The Walking Dead” because of the deep-seeded urge to explore questions of ultimacy and purpose. The archetypal superhero story features a mild-mannered, socially awkward person who has an experience which alters their life, giving them superhuman strength, agility, speed, which enables them to help the vulnerable and bring justice to their city. At the heart of this curiosity (or in some cases obsession) is a deep-seeded desire to be extraordinary. And yet, questions of faith and religion are considered mostly fiction with traditions that are outdated and in need of reform.

“In this ‘Google’ generation, it seems that any question can be answered on the internet. More and more, the basic questions of life and reality are being answered in purely scientific terms.”

What is clear from these studies is that young people are not losing their sense religiousness or spirituality; they are no longer seeking their parents’ church for answers to their spiritual questions. The National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR) pointed out some key conclusions in this regard. About half of teens interviewed saw religion as important in their lives, and two thirds said they do not need to go to church in order to be religious or spiritual.[3] While some may think that youth are losing their sense of religiousness or reverence, this deep seeded desire to be extraordinary and go beyond the confines of their reality represents the restlessness St. Augustine speaks of which will only be truly satisfied by God.

In the 2013 film “Man of Steel,” Jor-El, discloses the mission Superman is to undertake, which sheds light on the role ministers and educators have the potential to play as they journey with young people through these liminal spaces of indecision, uncertainty, questioning, struggles with identity, and many other challenges of emerging adulthood: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will rise behind you…They will stumble…They will fall…But in time…They will join you in the sun. In time…you will help them accomplish wonders.”[4] Jor-El certainly reminds Superman of the monumental responsibility that comes with his abilities. Similarly, those of us who are engaged in education, whether in secondary or higher education, faith formation, or ministry of any kind must be reminded of the courage it takes to walk with young people along their faith journey toward the Son in hopes that they too will accomplish wonders!

This article will propose an important question related to accompaniment: In what ways can ministers and educators foster deep pastoral listening of young people with their concerns, questions and struggles in order to reclaim a sense of wonder and awe of God and intern to become enraptured with the person of Jesus Christ and his mission? It will provide an alternative reading of the Rich Young Man story in the Gospels by offering an important reflection on the growing disaffiliation of young people today. I will propose an alternative reading and brief synopsis of the Emmaus story, which features the veiled Christ as the prototypical minister who accompanies the disciples along the road. 

The Rich Young Man as the Archetypal Disaffiliated Youth

The exchange between the rich young man and Jesus is presented in the synoptic Gospels as a story pertaining to the demands of discipleship and the obstacles associated with riches for entrance into the kingdom of God. Jesus seems to use the rejection of the young ruler as a teachable moment about the danger of attachment to earthly treasures and an affirmation of the lifestyle undertaken by the disciples who had forsaken everything to follow him. Edwards proposes that the descriptive language used by Mark, “a man ran up and knelt before him” (Mk. 10:17) “suggests his earnestness to be a disciple.”[5] Most Biblical scholars are also in agreement that the greeting “good teacher” is not typical of rabbinical times as the term could be attributed to God alone and thus could be interpreted as extreme flattery bordering on blasphemy.[6] What is easy to surmise from the passage at first glance is that Jesus represents an authority figure of the time and thus the young man is drawn to ask this important question about what must be done to obtain eternal life.

Young people are seeking answers to ultimate questions about God, salvation and spirituality but they are no longer seeking these answers from the church due to feelings of abandonment, judgment for certain non-conformist behaviors or lifestyle choices, and a deepening mistrust in clergy as allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse continue to surface.

Jesus’ response, “why do you call me good?” is consistent with the rabbinical tradition that only God is good.[7] He then proceeds to instruct the young man on the need for adherence to the commandments. In Matthew’s Gospel the rejoinder is presented as a conditional statement, “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). In all three Gospel accounts the young man appears reassured as he responds, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”[8] Mark’s Gospel captures one of the few moments in which Jesus has eye contact with an individual. One is immediately drawn to the tenderness with which Jesus “looked at him, loved him” (Mark 10:27). Edwards remarks that the “word for ‘looked at’ (Gk. emblepein) is an intensified compound of the normal word for ‘look,’ meaning ‘to look at intently,’ ‘to examine,’ or ‘to scrutinize.”[9] In this intensified gaze, Jesus is able to perceive that the young man is prepared for a greater challenge commanding the young man sell his possessions due to strong attachments to wealth and social status. Harrington suggests that in this injunction to the young man, “Jesus invites him to a new stage…For this person, perfection as a disciple of Jesus involves distributing his wealth to the poor and sharing in the insecurity and the trust that were characteristic of the earthly Jesus and his first followers.”[10]

The young man is clearly not prepared for the response, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt.19:21). In the very next moment however one is also left perplexed as Jesus does not seem to care that the young man has left and uses the incident as a teachable moment about the dangers of trusting in riches. On further thought, Jesus’ look of love suggests a vision and understanding of a deeper poverty in the young man. This young person clearly is not able to see his need to detach from his material possessions and status. Vaage argues that “Had the man been able to do this, he would shortly have learned, together with Peter and his colleagues, that the result of such complete renunciation…is not a perpetual homelessness but, instead, another kind of domestic life.”[11] The life of discipleship in which an individual abandons house, family and material wealth is presented as the highest ideal which the young man has rejected. That said, Biblical scholars are mixed in their opinions as to whether or not the young man walks away without later returning.

For example, Fitzmeyer notes “that in the Lucan Gospel we are not told that he ‘turned away.’ We do not know precisely the status of this magistrate: Was he a disciple of not? Does his sadness imply that he ceased being a disciple?”[12] In a similar way, the message that has been conveyed thus far about disaffiliation is that young people are turning away but it may not be too late to initiate a return through an effective ministry of accompaniment. Could they be leaving because they are not being given a sufficient reason to return and live the life of discipleship? As has been shown, the research on disaffiliation shows that young people are seeking answers to ultimate questions about God, salvation and spirituality but they are no longer seeking these answers from the church due to feelings of abandonment, judgment for certain non-conformist behaviors or lifestyle choices, and a deepening mistrust in clergy as allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse continue to surface.

A Contemporary Reading of the Rich Young Man as the Archetypal Disaffiliated Youth

As part of a modern reading of this passage, one first wonders if young people today would have been drawn to the person of Christ or pastoral ministers today to ask such existential questions as this young man posed. Would he have demonstrated the earnestness of the young man who ran up to him and knelt before him? One has to wonder what was the urgency that drew him to seek spiritual guidance from this man? We read that the young man addresses Jesus with the title “good teacher” and the enquiry: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”[13] In chapter one of his groundbreaking encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II reminds us that:

For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life.[14]

Thus, for our purposes here, the youth minister must recognize that when youth bring these queries to the church’s ministers, they are hoping for an answer that will satisfy their longing for God, purpose, and direction for their life. This is a prime opportunity to come along side young people in understanding their questions and their reasons for asking. Young people are similarly not able to appreciate the riches of the life of discipleship without an experience of encounter with Jesus. Instead they are presented with a Gospel message as an either-or proposition in very much the same way this young man was challenged by Jesus. Faith formation classes and youth group sessions can often be perceived by young people as judgmental and inflexible to nonconformist positions.

In order for the Gospel challenge to truly be received by young people today in an effective way, pastoral agents must first look inwardly and must reassess and reimagine through its leadership, vision, worship, preaching, and witness what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.”

Jesus’ rejoinder to adhere to the commandments (v.19) represents the opportunity ministers have to present them an aspect of the faith tradition that can be the root of their inquiry. The young man’s response, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” (v.20) represents affirmation or denial we may get from youth in response to church teaching. To this Jesus responds with the radical challenge of discipleship. The Gospel writers all agree that at the challenge to sell all his possessions and follow Jesus, the young man became saddened. Mark uses the phrase that the man was “shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions.”[15] One can imagine the downcast young man saying to himself, “this is too hard, I can’t part with my wealth, position and status to follow this man Jesus.” In a similar way, young people are leaving the church because they are not willing to part with many of the riches they have discovered in the world.

On the other hand, the need to hold onto the riches of wealth, position, and status could also represent the reticence on the part of the church and its leadership to meet young people where they are. In the midst of this shocking story, we do not see Jesus running after the young man to say, “Hey buddy, I didn’t mean that.” Instead we see Jesus talking about how difficult it is for a person with riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.[16] The young man walks away and is never heard from again in the Gospels or in the remainder of the New Testament. This cliffhanger leaves the reader wondering: “What happened to him?” Did he return after some thought, did he do what the master told him and return to follow the Lord, or did he go back to his life of wealth, status, and following the cultural and religious norms of society?

As an introductory group activity for my Junior Christian Morality course at Monsignor Pace High School, I ask students to read the passage of the Rich Young Man and perform a role play in order to enact what they think happened next after he walked away. What is telling from this activity is that while some groups portrayed the young man as unable to leave his current lifestyle due to his strong attachments, the majority of the groups portray him giving away his possessions and returning to the Lord after a time.

What is telling in this exchange with the young man is the freedom and flexibility ministers are to give to youth to respond and act in a loving environment, to reject and even walk away, but with the hope that he will return. As mentors, pastoral leaders must be able to allow for push back and struggle to occur with patience, encouragement, and love without turning them away. In order for the Gospel challenge to truly be received by young people today in an effective way, pastoral agents must first look inwardly and must reassess and reimagine through its leadership, vision, worship, preaching, and witness what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Only after this commitment to living a life of radical discipleship are young people going to take the church seriously enough to see and appreciate the power of the message that is being presented and embrace it instead of walking away. Like Jesus, pastoral leadership is called to look attentively and lovingly at the many young men and women who are walking away and some of the contributing factors to their flight.

The Synod on Youth concludes with the following imperative:

The young are crying out for an authentic, radiant, transparent, joyful Church: only a Church of saints can measure up to such requests! Many of the young have left the Church because they have not found in it holiness, but rather mediocrity, presumption, division and corruption. Unfortunately the world is outraged by the abuses of some people in the Church rather than being invigorated by the holiness of her members: hence the Church in her entirety must embrace a decisive, immediate and radical change of perspective![17]

The portrait of the crestfallen young man who walks away must be a constant reminder of the need for a radical change of perspective and culture which should begin with pastoral leadership and permeate every ministry and individual active in the faith community. The young man was genuinely seeking answers to deep questions and believed that by following the dictates of the religious tradition he could obtain a heavenly reward. In order for young people of today to understand and appreciate the true riches that are found in following Christ and the beauty of the Christian tradition and its teachings, they must first come to an experience of encounter. Cultivating a dynamic “culture of encounter” provides an environment for youth to recapture a sense of the uniqueness of life and message of Christ.


        [1] Albert Einstein, The World As I See It as quoted in Living Religions, by Mary Pat Fisher (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2014), 24.  

     [2] Mark Gray, “Young people are leaving the faith. Here’s why.”  Our Sunday Visitor News weekly: August 27, 2016. https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/PapalVisit/Articles/Article/TabId/2727/ArtMID/20933/ArticleID/20512/Young-people-are-leaving-the-faith-Heres-why.aspx. Accessed February 8, 2017.

     [3] Christopher Smith & Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 39.

     [4] Zach Snyder, Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder, David S. Goyer, Henry Cavill, et al. 2013. Man of Steel. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 309.

[6] C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Mark, 399. Also see Leon Morris, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 292. Also see Edward J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary-Vol II: The New Testament and Topical Articles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968), 45.

[7] C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Mark, 399.

[8] Mark 10:20; Matt. 19:20; Luke 18:21.

[9] Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, 312.

[10] Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1989), 890.

[11] Leif E. Vaage, “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71, no. 4 (2009): 758.

[12] Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke, 1197.

[13] Luke 18:18.

[14] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Vatican.va., 8.

[15] Mark 10:22.

[16] Mark 10:23.

[17] XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, “Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” October 2018, 166, http://www.synod2018.va.

Photos by Edward Cisneros, Tuce, and Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

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