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Rev. Paul Philibert, O.P. '58 answers a question during the Randall Lecture.

Randall Professor says future of Catholic Church depends on conversion of ‘millennials’

“Millennials” — young adults born after 1980 — need to be offered a clearly articulated idea of Catholicism to engage “their understanding, their loyalty, and their deepest energies,” according to Rev. Paul Philibert, O.P. ’58, the Rev. Robert Randall Professor in Christian Culture for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Father Philibert, whose specialty is pastoral theology, spoke in Aquinas Hall Lounge on the topic “What is Adult Faith?” The Randall Professorship, Providence College’s first endowed chair, was established in 2002 to honor Father Randall, who taught for more than 25 years in the Department of English, the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) Program, and the Liberal Arts Honors Program.

In introducing Father Philibert, Dr. Richard J. Grace ’62, professor of history, noted that Father Philibert has taught theology around the country and the world, including at PC from 1968-1973, at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, the University of Notre Dame, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif., The Catholic University of America, and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

Father Philibert came to PC as a pre-ecclesiastical student in 1954 and entered the novitiate of the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph after graduation. He joined the Southern Province when it was created in 1979 and has served in all four Dominican provinces. He also is one of a select group of Dominicans to be awarded its highest academic honor, the Master’s in Sacred Theology, an honorary title given for singular intellectual contributions to the Church and the Order over a lengthy period.

In his lecture, Father Philibert noted that about 20 percent of Americans do not identify with any religious practice and less than a third of Roman Catholics identify as “strongly Catholic” in practice and attitudes. About a third of born Catholics have left the Church for other denominations or to abandon religious practice altogether.

“Former Catholics make up the largest proportion of mega church members,” said Father Philibert. “And just in terms of numbers, former Roman Catholics constitute the second largest denomination in the U.S.”

Vatican II defined the Church as “the people of God … front-line agents of the Church’s mission,” Father Philibert said. It was a big change from earlier in the century, when the British Cardinal Aidan Gasquet said, “What is the position of the laity in the Church? The laity has two positions: in one they kneel before the altar, and in the other they sit below the pulpit.” He added a third: “The laity also put their hands in their wallets during the collection.”

Despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, today “the Catholic Church invites people to become regular consumers of conventional rituals and traditional formulas of belief without offering them enough substantial on-going formation,” said Father Philibert. “American Catholics generally are under-catechized and over-sacramentalized.”

“Today’s Sunday assembly is graying”

The U.S. Bishops’ Plan for Adult Faith Formation said in 1999 that “a living faith is a searching faith,” Father Philibert noted. The faith seekers include young adults, described by one sociologist as “cultural tinkerers,” interested in knowing about religious traditions but lacking a knowledge of foundational ideas.

Rather than shake their heads in dismay, old-timers should pay attention, Father Philibert said, because “today’s Sunday assembly is graying and can only be the mainstay of a parish for less than a decade.”

“Catholic millennials still have the same sympathy for Catholicism that they have for their Catholic relatives,” Father Philibert said. “Strictly speaking, however, they are unevangelized. They are consumers of the rites and the sacraments, but they do not become themselves the basic sacrament of the faith. … There is little doubt that they want a meaningful life and will pay attention to a meaningful message about life.”

Pope Francis has demonstrated that he may have such a message, Father Philibert said.

“We notice his emphasis upon the Mercy of God expressed not principally as doctrine but as loving ministry,” said Father Philibert. “The unselfconscious quality of his gestures is remarkable, whether he is embracing a sick child or inviting street people to breakfast.”

Catholics should ask themselves: “Are our parishes in the business of really welcoming those who are ‘other’ in culture, race, age, or piety, different from the dominant group? Can teens or young adults find people their age in leadership roles of hospitality, service, music, or celebration? Do gifted professionals have any idea that they might take initiatives for pastoral service and leadership in the parish and the neighboring community?

“These are important questions that we all too often fail to raise,” Father Philibert said.

Father Philibert’s fall Randall Lecture was “New Pope, Old Problem: True and False Reform in the Church.” He also offers seminars to juniors and seniors in the Liberal Arts Honors Program.

On April 5, Father Philibert will convene the 2014 Rev. Robert J. Randall Conference on Christian Culture. “The Living Sacrifice of the Body of Christ” will be presented from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Ruane Center for the Humanities with Rev. Robert J. Daly, professor emeritus of Boston College, and Harold W. Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. The event is free and open to the public. Register by emailing

— Vicki-Ann Downing

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