There is an ongoing debate about how much the Catholic Church should embrace youth culture in its quest to reach out to young people. What happens when the Catholic faith meets contemporary culture? What are the gains and the risks?
Let me look at this through another lens. For many Irish teens, summers involve an unusual rite of passage: spending three weeks in an Irish-speaking part of Ireland (‘Gaeltacht’), going to Irish language classes, and living with local families, speaking ‘as Gaeilge’ all the time. For most, this time in the Gaeltacht is a very positive experience, and these colleges do a huge amount to help promote the language. Still, you wouldn’t necessarily think of them as particularly ‘hip’ places, and most Irish people probably don’t think of the Irish language as particularly cool…
Recently though, one Irish college has been doing a huge amount to change this perception. Coláiste Lurgan, just west of Galway city, has set up a YouTube channel and produced a series of really excellent videos of current hits sung in Irish, with students singing and acting as extras. Have a look at this one.
What really works about these videos is their effortless melding of new and old. The language with the oldest vernacular literature in Europe is used to express the (sometimes shallow) sentiments of dance anthems; summery tunes are accompanied by traditional instruments; Irish dance is performed in industrial white jumpsuits… All this shines a fairly glamorous spotlight on a language which badly needs a bit of glamour, and their success in catching the attention of Irish youth culture is undisputable.
Why am I writing about this on Jericho Tree? Well, firstly, I think we in the Church could learn a lot from Coláiste Lurgan’s example. If we want to catch the fleeting attention of ‘the youth’, we need to be able to speak their language, to sing (or at least mime) their songs, to be comfortable in their world. In the online world, there are some great examples of this approach: Catholic Memes, Bad Catholic, and the excellent videos produced by Frassateam (you don’t really need French to understand what’s going on!). All of these are excellent enterprises: light-hearted attempts at making serious propositions to youth culture, and we need lots more like them.
At the same time, simply striking a ‘youth culture’ pose is insufficient either to save the Irish language or to renew the Church. At school, I was very lucky to have an Irish language teacher who understood the grammar of the language and who was passionate about teaching it. He taught the grammar so well that eventually it became second nature, and we could converse fairly fluently. Most students aren’t so lucky, and because they never master the grammar, their ability to express themselves is always limited. If you never master the ‘aimsir chaite’ and the ‘modh coinníolach’, you’ll never be able to translate songs by Daft Punk and Avicii.
In the same way, adding glamour to the Faith is never a substitute for learning the grammar of the Faith. As young believers we should always seek to express Christianity in contemporary language, but we should seek first to really know and understand the contents of the Faith. The best way to do this is by reading. Have you got a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? If not, get one. Do you buy CTS pamphlets which explain aspects of Catholicism? If not, start. Is Catholic Answers among your bookmarked websites? If not, add it. The hard work of learning Catholic grammar is an essential prerequisite for those who want to speak fluently to contemporary culture.