When you make peace with the fact that yes, you actually have turned into your father, you will be left with the crosses. You try to emulate the best of your dad’s gifts (something I routinely fail at) while doing combat against the same foibles he faced down (jury’s still out on that one).

One of my dad’s pet projects was ruminating on the “fact” we were living during the beginning of the end of the United States. His equating the state of American civilization with that of ancient Rome’s decline made us chuckle … never within his earshot, of course.

I’m not laughing anymore. Maybe television is to blame. There are plenty of research papers demonstrating how television contributes to childhood obesity, but what of childhood ignorance — or adult ignorance for that matter?

According to my Google Scholar search, the research concerning whether television makes children less intelligent is inconclusive.  

“A number of experimental studies have shown that children who watch episodes of educational television, such as ‘Sesame Street,’ demonstrate improvements in educational domains immediately afterward. Conversely, other experimental studies have shown short-term detriments in children who watch non-educational television.” (Zimmerman & Christakis).

Regardless of what children are or are not getting on television, a recent experience I had — in of all places, the bleachers of a public high school baseball game — put the question of what children know or don’t know into uncomfortably sharp focus.  

I was there to watch my son umpire a game and was generally minding my own business when three teenage boys sat near me, each with their own large Dominos Pizza box. (Oh to have the metabolism of a testosterone-addled 17-year-old. … But I digress.)

The boys were loud, so I wasn’t eavesdropping, and their conversation bounced around like so many pinballs in so many pinball machines in non sequitur after non sequitur — mostly orbiting around girls in their class. I’ll save you those verbatim renditions.

Then out of a clear blue sky, one of the guys asked his friends if they believed in God. He had stumped the panel and a collective shrug followed.

I heard one of the guys ask the first, “Are you a Christian?” His response — and this is a direct quote — “What’s a Christian?”

No one in the group knew the answer.

The best response one of them came up with — and again, this is a direct quote now burned into my hippocampus — was “I think Christian means you pray to saints.” There I was, sitting in the bleachers of a public high school in the Western hemisphere in 2015 and 17-year-old boys did not know who or what a Christian was. Can Caligula be far behind?

Now, before we start patting ourselves on the back and feeling superior to these public school kids, who by law receive no religious instruction in the classroom — and who, by the indication of the conversation I was privy to, are not receiving much instruction at home either — allow me to recall another quote from another child.

This one belonged to a sixth grader in a Catholic school. I was with a group of prospective altar servers and we were going through the basic steps when this sixth-grade boy pointed to the crucifix in the church and said, “You know when I was little (this was a sixth grader talking, mind you) I used to believe Jesus was God.”

There I was, standing in the sanctuary of a Catholic church in the Western hemisphere in the 21st century, gently telling a boy who had already spent seven years in Catholic school (if you include kindergarten), that our faith informs us Jesus was indeed who this boy thought he was when he was “little.”

Don’t worry, it gets worse.

More recently, I was making small talk outside church with a mom who had a daughter in the same Catholic school — a very nice person and someone I know has provided a home for a child from very difficult circumstances. So she has done more charity work than I.

We were just saying hello to one another when she announced her oldest son was engaged. Before I uttered the most mundane congratulations, the mom felt compelled to qualify things by saying, “And the girl’s Catholic … not that that matters.”

Bishop Fulton Sheen, the go-to guy for powerful quotes that cut to the chase in ways scribblers like me can only dream about, put it best when he mused, “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”

Those pizza pounding public high school kids and that little sixth grade Catholic school kid and that charitable mom don’t hate the Catholic Church. But they don’t have a clue of what the Catholic Church is either.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t fall in one either, so my dad’s take on things notwithstanding, I think we have time. But to fix things it is going to take a multi-pronged approach of engaging popular culture where most people consume their information, and redoubling efforts even in our own schools. We have found missionary territory … and it is us.