Two perspectives on how to interpret young adults' commitment to Catholicism
by Colleen Carroll Campbell
Conventional wisdom among America’s chattering classes has long held that the Catholic Church’s teachings are too tough and countercultural to appeal to the next generation. But two months ago young adults from around the world defied that conventional wisdom by pouring into Rome to bid farewell to Pope John Paul II. Gathering some 4 million strong for his funeral, an overwhelmingly young crowd packed every inch of St. Peter’s Square to pray for the pope and celebrate the traditional Catholic faith that he had taught them to love.
Their reverence and enthusiasm for the church and its leader surprised many that day, but their impromptu gathering was not the anomaly that some might suppose. It was only the most recent and dramatic manifestation of a larger phenomenon, a grass-roots revival of faith among young adults that quietly is renewing the Catholic Church.
Several years ago I chronicled the American face of this revival in my book, “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy” (Loyola Press, 2002). In the course of interviewing some 500 young adults all across America, I found a growing number of them adopting the teachings and traditions of an orthodox Christian faith.
These “new faithful,” as I call them, have not seen too little of a secular, hedonistic society to understand its allure. They have seen too much to believe its promises. And they have turned instead to an older promise, one rooted in the traditions that their parents’ generation rejected: the promise of a life guided by a transcendent vision and ordered by absolute truth.
The Catholics in this group have modeled their faith on the robust orthodoxy of Pope John Paul II. They are not “Sunday Christians” or “cafeteria Catholics.” They are disciples of Jesus Christ who have had powerful conversion experiences that convinced them to live for God alone. These young men and women embrace church teachings in their entirety, including its prohibitions against premarital sex, contraception and abortion. They immerse themselves in studying Scripture and the catechism. They flock to daily Mass, eucharistic adoration and the sacrament of reconciliation. They work tirelessly to evangelize secular culture with their Catholic faith.
Though they remain a minority in their generation, statistics suggest that their ranks are growing. The World Values Survey recently found that in 58 countries “millennial Catholics” — those born after 1981 — are more likely to attend Mass, pray every day, consider religion important and have a larger degree of confidence in the church than the previous generation. Those trends are evident on America’s college campuses, where pro-life groups are booming, Catholic campus ministries that boldly proclaim church teachings are flourishing, and enrollment at conservative religious colleges is growing at a far faster rate than that of secular schools.
None of this would surprise Pope John Paul II. He knew that today’s young adults are starving for God and moral guidance. He addressed that hunger by proclaiming church teaching without compromise and challenging young people to become the saints of the new millennium.
Not all accepted his invitation, but far more found God through his bold witness than the pundits ever would have predicted. And far more still are waiting for us to finish his work and invite today’s young adults to give themselves completely to Jesus Christ and his church.
Young people packed St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul II died in April, and they saluted the new Pope Benedict XVI not long afterward. What does this tell us about the “millennial” generation of Catholics, those born in the past 25 years? Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and author of “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy” (Loyola Press, 2002), believes that ever-growing numbers of this generation are showing that they will seek God and moral guidance as participating members of the church. Mike Hayes, associate director of Paulist Young Adult Ministries based in New York, and an editor of the Paulist young adult Web site, www.bustedhalo.com, is concerned, however, that far too many young adult
Catholics are not in the church’s pews and that their faith needs are getting overlooked.
Special feature for BustedHalo from Catholic New Service.
As hundreds of thousands of young people made their way into St. Peter’s Square for Pope John Paul II’s funeral, I was transported back to my experience of World Youth Day in 2002. That summer in Toronto, young people, mostly teens, who came with a church youth group, were excited — jumping wildly, cameras flashing, trying to get a glimpse of Pope John Paul II as his popemobile slowly made its way through the streets.
World Youth Day and recent events in Rome gave young people a great reason to cheer their hero, but I believe their enormous enthusiasm reflects a sense of faith that is miles wide but only inches deep. Who will be there for them when they struggle to navigate the deeper, more difficult waters ahead?
Experience is an important facet of young adult spirituality, and Pope John Paul gave them an experience of his presence. But I wonder if many young people had the experience but missed the meaning? Where did they go once the moment died down?
One place they didn’t go was back to church. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 22 percent of young adult Catholics actually attend Mass weekly — a stark contrast to the filled pews of ages past.
Undoubtedly there is a small but significant minority of vocal and well-organized young adults whose dedication to the late pope was extraordinary. However, a much larger number admired the man but missed the message to such an extent that they didn’t even show up for Mass regularly. Some say the minority of “new faithful Catholics” is growing. In my experience, many of these young adults will find it difficult to negotiate a world they increasingly realize is no longer black and white but filled with countless shades of gray.
The worldview of the “millennials,” the generation born after 1981, has been shaped by the horrors of Sept. 11 and, to a lesser extent, the Columbine High School disaster. Not surprisingly, this group longs for contemplation and order in a world full of noise and chaos. In a technological age, “information overload” shortens their attention span. With a myriad of choices they sometimes lean toward an “unthinking piety” where catechism sound bites substitute for the deep discernment and questioning necessary to develop the type of faith that can survive in an increasingly complex world.
As a minister to people in their post-college years, these young adults often show up at my door when their rigid belief system falls apart. Sadly, at the moment when they need mentors more than ever, they are too often met with moralists. The result is not a break with the church but a certain distancing from it.
Who will be this generation’s spiritual mentors? While John Paul II and Benedict XVI are admirable men who set the bar of morality appropriately high and may indeed have created a stirring in the hearts and minds of many young adults, they have not aided in creating a spiritual mentoring environment for young adults in conflict. And living with conflict is the condition of the vast majority of people in their 20s and 30s, including those already committed to the Catholic faith.