Where have all the adults gone?

Jared Staudt

Our standards have been lowered when it comes to intelligent discourse from our politicians. Therefore, Nebraska’s Senator Ben Sasse’s new book comes as a surprise: The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (St. Martin’s, 2017). Sen. Sasse captures the heart of what ails our country and what needs to be done about it. He pinpoints a struggle for the very future of our country in our failure to raise our children to become responsible and thoughtful adults. He organizes the book around broad themes, such as education, cross-generational relationships, work, consumption, travel, and literacy.

Sasse quickly lays out the problem: “I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history. We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them” (2). In particular, he recognizes in young people a “deficit of life skills required for self-reliance” (40), which presents a pressing problem as “a nation of adult-children cannot be a nation of self-governing people” (246).

His diagnosis of young Americans includes characteristics such as “zombie-like passivity,” from the continual presence of screens,” being “bizarrely fuzzy-headed when actual real-world problems needed to be solved,” a “decline of agency, of initiative, of liveliness,” and an “outsized sense of entitlement without any corresponding notion of accountability” (3, 4, 123). The problem lies not with our young people, but with the fact that we “overmanage the lives of young adults” and have “failed to help them learn how to seize the reins and do it themselves much earlier” (76).

Sasse laments that many core values of America are now called into question. In regards to work, “kids no longer know how to produce” (18). When it comes to education, institutionalized schooling has displaced the social environment where a coming of age with increased responsibility occurred (19). Further, more time in school with more money spent has produced less results and little preparation for work and life (70). In a state of prolonged adolescence, “many younger people are now simply concluding that marriage isn’t terribly important, either individually or communally” (42). They also express little interest in religion.

The new book by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska explores the coming-of-age crisis much of the young culture is facing in the modern world.

Fortunately, Sasse spends more of the book outlining solutions than he does problems. He even gives practical suggestions at the end of many of his chapters. Providing many examples from his own family life, he calls parents to “tenderly but intentionally introduce[e] our children to the responsibilities of adulthood throughout their adolescence” (55). This includes “building and strengthening character” though the “intentional pursuit of gritty work experiences” (139). He also rightly notes that we need to moral uplifting, as we learn how to control and shape our desires to combat rampant consumerism (170).

He also recommends shaping the mind and vision of youth through travel experiences and greater literacy. For example, travel “offers the young person a broader menu of choices for how to think about life, and then for how to build better habits of living” (184) When it comes to reading, he argues that “America’s future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes—and such thinking demands a rebirth of reading” (208). Therefore, he recommends a basic book list, so that we can recover a shared reading of the classics that shaped Western civilization and the “idea” of our nation (226).

From a Catholic perspective, Sen. Sasse demonstrates some familiarity with the Catholic tradition, quoting Augustine, Aquinas, and Flannery O’Connor, but also defends his stake in the Protestant tradition and its work ethic, which has shaped the economic life of our country. To round out the vision of the book, I would recommend reading alongside of it Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture to overcome the limits of this Protestant work ethic and to recover the social legacy of the Middle Ages, which Sen. Sasse quickly dismisses (cf. 160).

Overall, Sen. Sasse has pinpointed an urgent issue and has directed us to important solutions that can guide our families, schools, and parishes to renewal as we form young people.

COMING UP: Bearing fruit by living Your charism

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In 2015, Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples became the Catholic book to read. Its simple but powerful message focused ecclesial leaders on a fundamental but overlooked point: Jesus called us to make disciples and yet most Catholics in the pews had not yet made that decision, let alone led others to it.

Weddell now asks us a fundamental question for parishes today: “Where’s the fruit?” It’s a question she asks through her ministry, the St. Catherine of Siena Institute, which points to an effective way to allow God to bear fruit in our lives—to discern and live our charisms. In her new book Fruitful Discipleship: Living the Mission of Jesus in the Church and the World (OSV, 2017), she looks at the gifts God gives to all the baptized to build up the Church. Most Catholics, however, she notes, do not even know what a charism is let alone how to begin living theirs out.

The Christian life is not just about our talents and efforts, but flows more fundamentally from the supernatural work of God. Every baptized Christian has supernatural gifts from God—sanctifying grace, gifts of the Spirit, infused virtues—including charisms. Weddell defines charisms as “gifts of the Holy Spirit” or “graces that pass through you and me – with our cooperation – to convey God’s truth, beauty, provision, healing, and mercy to someone else” (75). God does in fact give charisms to all Christians, though they are largely unrecognized. Helping Catholics to recognize them presents an essential task as “every baptized person has a ‘totally unique contribution’ to make to the Church’s mission” (77, quoting St. John Paul II).

If we do not live out our charisms, we will not see the fruit God intends in our lives and parishes. Weddell challenges us to rethink parish life and change its culture. “We have observed over the years that the cultural norm in place in most parishes unintentionally suppresses and impedes the spiritual growth and conversion of many” (214). Rather, “we need to build a parish-literate band of evangelizers whose primary work is to help individuals and families become mature disciples and fruit-bearing apostles” (217). She notes that we have to move from a maintenance mentality that simply seeks to preserve the status quo to a more dynamic model of helping each Catholic accept their mission from God to evangelize and serve.

Charisms are divided into three major groups of charisms: individual, founding, and hierarchical (86). Founding charisms enable the beginning of new spiritual movements and hierarchical charisms are given to the clergy through ordination. She focuses, therefore, on the individual charisms, and through her Called & Gifted Workshops has identified a “working list of charisms,” which includes: “encouragement, helps, hospitality, mercy, pastoring, evangelism, prophecy, teaching, administration, leadership, giving, service, celibacy, extraordinary faith, missionary, voluntary poverty, healing, intercessory prayer, knowledge, wisdom, craftsmanship, music, writing” (78-79). These charisms may be given in a temporary or abiding way.

The way to discover your charisms is to be active in the life of the parish and to work in the apostolate. Unlike other spiritual gifts and graces, charisms are directly ordered toward the good of others. Charisms help us to serve effectively and must be discerned, as they are gifts and not simply our own talents or desires. When exercising them, there will be a sense of God’s presence, a joy, and also greater effectiveness in service. Weddell describes “the three signs of a charism – your personal experience, your objective effectiveness for the Kingdom of God, and the positive feedback of others, both direct and indirect,” which “should be consistently present over time” (198). She notes that even though she guides people through inventories to get a sense of their gifts, charisms are only discerned by acting and discerning over time.

Just as Sherry Weddell challenged us a few years ago to put making disciples at the forefront of our ministry in the Church, now she helps us to understand that this work will only bear fruit through the gifts given to us by God. If we truly open ourselves to these gifts, discern them, and practice them for the good of others, we will see much more fruit in our lives and parishes. In conclusion, Weddell asks: “What could the Holy Spirit do through us if hundreds of parishes were filled with fruit-bearing missionary disciples who are deliberately entering the veins of our neighborhoods and cities to bring Jesus Christ to the world?” (232). It’s a question we all should be asking too.