Youths' views on religion


Three hours of rapid-fire, informed discussion of religious issues was not enough yesterday for 200 teen-agers from 20 private, public, church and synagogue high schools in Baltimore. They needed more time to consider "how to be both religious and cool."

Paul Springer, a Calvert Hall student, spoke for many of the participants when he said, "We have moral obligations. You can cheat and get by with it all your life, but is that what you really want to do? Having morals is not uncool."

Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Protestant and agnostic -- with possibly an atheist here or there in the group -- the students had come to St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park to offer their youthful perspectives on Pope John Paul II's visit.

Garrison Forest's Liz Martin echoed a common complaint about yesterday's talks. "I wish we had more time," she said.

Reporting from one of the 20 small-group discussions of "religion as power and influence," she said, "We looked at the implications of religion used as a crutch. We don't think religion is used enough in our social life, but when the pope came, people did come together."

From Western High School, Rosemary Gookin said, "We talked about human involvement vs. giving money to the church and not doing anything else. We decided religious beliefs are not being turned to enough by young people in our country. We worry about the future."

"We have some frustrations with the church as an institution -- it's not appealing to youth enough," said Marla Johnson, a Bryn Mawr student. "In the pope's visit, there were positive and negative influences. The visit was very commercial. This took away from the seriousness of it."

Garrison Forest's Liz Martin agreed. "Television does not portray religion well," she said. "It can be offensive."

Mary Ellen Thomsen, former headmistress of St. Paul's School for Girls, was one of the organizers of the interfaith program. She said interest was high at the participating schools, with more students wanting to attend the 9 a.m.-to-noon program than the space could accommodate.

Betty Visconage and Rudi Ruckman of the St. Mary's staff said the program's popularity means that the Ecumenical Institute at the seminary might develop more programs for the 13-to-18 age group.

Other high schools that sent 10 representatives each were Poly, Archbishop Spalding, Beth Tfiloh Community, Boys' Latin, Friends, Gilman, Institute of Notre Dame, Loyola Blakefield, Maryvale Prep, McDonogh, Mercy, Notre Dame Prep, Park and St. Paul's -- both the girls' and boys' schools.

They picked their student representatives in various ways. Each supplied one faculty member, who sat in on the small-group discussions after a question-and-answer session with a Muslim imam, a United Methodist minister, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest.

So many students at Roland Park Country wanted to take part that the school was forced to hold a lottery, Mrs. Thomsen said.

The participants did not shy away from controversy or probing questions about the Catholic and other faiths. Throughout, participants maintained a high level of courtesy.

Imam Bashar Arafat of the Islamic Society of Baltimore was asked by a black student, "How and when are you going to come together with Minister Louis Farrakhan?"

The imam replied, "We do not agree with his racial views, but we are working hard to bridge the gap."

Imam Arafat said mainstream Islam believes people of all races are equal as human beings, "as creatures of God."

The Rev. Matthew Smith -- a recent graduate of St. Mary's Seminary and the Catholic spokesman on the interfaith panel who was asked by students to explain papal infallibility, liberation theology and the pope's opposition to women's ordination -- said there was more "substance" in this program than at others during the pope's visit to Baltimore.

The pontiff was considered by participants as both a spiritual and political force.

"We decided religion should play a role in politics but not a major one," said a student from Mercy High School.

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