Katie Diller leads ESTEEM—Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission—a Catholic campus ministry program that provides leadership training, faith formation, and ecclesial education at 11 colleges and universities throughout the US, and she is a campus minister at Michigan State University.
Michael O’Loughlin: ESTEEM was started, in part, to address the growing percentage of ex-Catholics in the US, attempting to keep students active in their Catholic faith once they graduate college. Why are young people leaving the church?
Katie Diller: We often say that young people drift from the church because of parents who did not prioritize religious practice, lack of catechesis, flat liturgy, perceived lack of sensitivity for our gay brothers and sisters, or outright disagreement with certain church teachings.
Jesus’ disciples were criticized for failing to keep Mosaic laws on fasting and washing, they didn’t understand his teachings, got jealous and jockeyed for position, doubted and betrayed him. Young disciples haven’t changed much. Young adults graduate from college or complete service in the military with incredible technical skills, experiences of leadership and eagerness to prove themselves, and yet we wait until lay people are 50 or 60 years old to appoint them to parish, diocesan, and Catholic non-profit councils and boards. We need the wisdom, experience and leadership of every generation, but unfortunately, we fail to ask for it from those in their 20s and 30s.
MO: You earned a masters degree in cell biology from Yale University before completing a degree in theology and launching a career in campus ministry. What do you make of the apparent conflict between religion and science today?
KD: I don’t believe in a conflict between religion and science. All of the scientists I’ve ever met, atheists and believers alike, could be described as deeply pious and filled with awe at the stuff on the other end of a microscope or telescope: the amazing human immune system, the infinite night sky, the astounding variety and beauty of nature. There are always a few topical disagreements and misunderstandings between religious and scientific communities, but overall, religion and science, faith and reason, are both critical to understanding our world.
MO: The Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women to the priesthood, and it’s seen by some as a hindrance to gender equality. What’s your experience working in the church as a young, lay woman?
KD: The trouble with the issue of women’s inclusion, and inclusion of lay voices regardless of gender, is that it can vary greatly from pastor to pastor, bishop to bishop. Some have suggested that our “vocations shortage” could be the work of the Holy Spirit to help or force our church to include a more diverse group of voices in leadership. The church has declared the issue of women’s presbyteral ordination closed, but there are other ways to include women in leadership in a more formal, less “at will” manner. The College of Cardinals is a structure that has changed and adapted through time, appointing lay men and women as cardinals would be an interesting way to share authority across gender lines. Loosening restrictions on lay preaching would be another.
MO: As a Catholic campus minister at a large, public university, what are the obstacles to attracting young people to the church?
KD: Campus ministry is an amazing world. We offer retreats and mission trips that quite literally change lives. If we are serious about attracting young people to the Church, and serious about forming young people as mature, well-catechized, self-sacrificing Catholics, we need to invest in campus ministry programs. That investment can mean something as simple as offering to donate a title or two from the parish library wish list or offering to sponsor a troubled student on an upcoming retreat. There are many ways, large and small, to assist campus ministers.
MO: The new atheists are younger, friendlier, more upbeat, and found on college campuses. How will the Catholic Church, often viewed as resistant to modern trends, compete for the attention of young people?
KD: A good mystery always captures attention. I’d like us preach more about mystery. Falling in love is a mystery. Self-sacrifice is a mystery. Radical giving, volunteering, selflessness, these are all mysteries.
In recent years I have observed a shift toward preaching about truth, perhaps an effort to combat societal relativism. When truth is wielded like a hammer, our faith can seem cold and uninviting. Yet our truths are made manifest to us through mystery, the mystery of the incarnation, the cross, the Eucharist, etc.
Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples talks about five stages of conversion. The second stage is curiosity. An encounter with mystery inspires curiosity!
Young adults are filled with passion and they are thirsty to live radically. Atheism can seem radical to students who might be shrugging off a flavorless experience of growing up Catholic. We have to talk about the mystery of faith in our lives. Pope Francis keeps encouraging us to go out of ourselves, to live mysterious lives in solidarity with the poor. Encounters with that mystery of love and self-sacrifice will always inspire curiosity about the mystery of Jesus and the Church.
MO: Like the nation, the church is politically polarized. How has this separation affected working in ministry?
KD: People argue because they are passionate. So, the bright side of the political polarization of the church is that people are passionate about their beliefs. We certainly need that passion, and passion is better than apathy.
Polarization limits dialogue and creativity. The risk of attracting a label can discourage a person in ministry from voicing creative ideas or defending the lived experience of a person or group of people. Lay ministers are particularly at risk, since they can be easily dismissed. This sense of risk leads to fear, and working in fear, particularly fear of others in ministry, is certainly a sad state of affairs.
Jesus surrounded himself with a diverse crowd, including poor fishermen, Roman collaborators, religious zealots, women, and foreigners. The best leaders invite many different voices into the decision making process. Our church would benefit from an honest and transparent effort toward inclusion of similarly diverse voices.
MO: What gives your students hope?
KD: Mentorship gives hope. Someone to talk to, someone who will check on them, recommend a book, ask about their life plans, entrust them with a valued project, in the case of the church, a sacred project. Young adults want to be trusted, challenged, and mentored.
Matching students with Catholic mentors who already hold careers in a student’s field of study is one of the cornerstones of ESTEEM. I would encourage everyone to try his or her hand at mentoring. Ask the intern in the mailroom to join you for a coffee break and ask about their career plans. Listen first, offer advice later. Give them a copy of your favorite book. Tell them how you support your church and community. Invite them to volunteer alongside you for your favorite charity. Mentoring gives young people hope.