Odyssey Catholics

Young and restless

Justin Brandon has been weighing his options. The 25-year-old San Francisco resident recently applied to Stanford’s highly competitive MBA program, but even if admitted, he isn’t sure he wants to leave his job at Better World Books, the promising dot-com where he has coordinated online marketing since June.

Brandon isn’t used to feeling so content about a job. In the three years since he graduated from the University of Notre Dame, he has done extended volunteer work in Puerto Rico, served as a video production assistant at Notre Dame, shot documentary films in Ghana and Haiti, and worked as a search quality technician for Google in Silicon Valley.

“Every year,” he said, “part of me wants to move cities or switch jobs.”

Brandon and his restless ventures represent a generational trend among some young college-educated men and women who are free to choose flux over stability. Some social scientists have dubbed these post-college years the “odyssey years”—a nomadic period when young adults move from one job to another, from one city to the next, delaying marriage, children and permanent career tracks longer than previous generations. Spiritually, they tend to be seekers, a characteristic that applies even to many with deep roots in a traditional religion such as Catholicism and no great desire to venture too far from the fold.

Sparked by Faith

“Catholicism was a deep part of my experience at Notre Dame. It is what opened my eyes to the wider world. It sparked [my journey] and has influenced my way of going about it,” Brandon said.

According to a number of studies, the same holds true for a significant proportion of other young Catholics who belong to the so-called “Millennial generation,” the still-forming group that follows Generation X and includes those born in the period from the late 1970s to the late ’80s. These include 29-year-olds Nicole Shirilla and Ed Fians. Shirilla began medical school this fall in Pittsburgh after teaching in Baton Rouge, La., working in South Bend, Ind., and traveling to Rwanda and Sri Lanka as a filmmaker. Fians plans a springtime move from Chicago to New York City—his second stint there, and the fourth time he will have decamped for a different state since 2001.

These three Millennials—unwed at an age their parents are likely to have been married, and still discerning a career path several years after graduation—believe that Catholicism has informed their journeys. And vice versa: Their journeys have informed their faith. In the fluid world of the odyssey years, their stories split and converge in fascinating ways on issues of religious practice, commitment, community and convictions—all those things, in other words, that relate to their identities as Catholics.

Their stories reinforce the view expressed recently by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Citing the work of Princeton University scholar Robert Wuthnow, Brooks wrote that today’s children “graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself. Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging.”

Justin Brandon
There are 96 parishes in the San Francisco archdiocese, but Justin Brandon questions whether he’d feel at home in any of them. To him, conventional parish life conjures up images of stuffy, oversized congregations.

“I have a hard time feeling like that offers me much in its traditional form right now,” he said.

That stance syncs with research done by William D’Antonio of The Catholic University of America, which shows that Millennials like Brandon struggle to connect with traditional Catholic practice. “Over a month or five weeks, you could say maybe half of them will get to Mass,” said D’Antonio, a professor emeritus of sociology and one of the authors of American Catholics Today, a recent book based on survey data first published in NCR. D’Antonio cites the work of theologian Elizabeth Dreyer, who observes that younger Catholics are seeking spiritual experience outside of church buildings.

Seeking Community

Young adults have grown up in the impersonal individualism of the information age, and in many ways embrace it.

Brandon, for instance, finds greater spiritual fulfillment through activities like the Loaves and Fishes program at the Newman Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where he and other young people prepare meals for the homeless. When he goes to Mass, he prefers a small Christian community as its setting. He describes a recent Mass at a friend’s home, where an Argentinean priest preached about his experiences working among the poor.

“Everyone was around my age,” Brandon recalled. “The friend sitting next to me hadn’t gone to church in a long time, and it really moved him. People are after community, and in so many places it’s just not there. Why attend a church that feels impersonal when your whole life feels impersonal, sitting in front of a computer?”

Brandon’s words capture the paradox affecting so many Millennials: the simultaneous pull towards isolation and interconnectedness. Young adults have grown up in the impersonal individualism of the information age, and in many ways embrace it. They feel at home with enormously popular Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, where they maintain what Brandon calls noncommital “loose affiliations” with a variety of acquaintances and issues.

Extremely Mobile

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing about recent encounters with Millennials still in college, noted, “I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be.” Brandon would attribute that lack of engagement to the Internet. Instead of joining a political movement, he said, his peers take the easier route of virtual engagement with people of similar interests on Facebook.

“We’re also extremely mobile,” added Brandon, who in his mid-20s has already visited six continents. “We can pick up and move easily. It creates a transient, self-reliant lifestyle where it’s easy to be superficial. But I think we still want to feel connected with our world and each other in a deeper way.”

According to another recent D’Antonio study (coauthored with Vincent Bolduc), the Millennial generation mixes “personal autonomy with new-found concerns for the common good.” More than other generations, they are likely to rely on individual conscience when making moral decisions than on the church’s teaching authority. But the church’s social teaching, particularly its exhortation to help the poor, strongly resonates with 91 percent of Catholic Millennials.

Millennials are demonstrating their altruism through ever-increasing involvement in community service, but they are also integrating it into their shifting career choices.

“I was at an entrepreneurial conference recently,” Brandon said, “and these older venture capitalists were amazed at how many of us [Millennials] are incorporating ways to give back in our business models.”

A good example is Brandon’s own work at Better World Books, which he describes as a “socially conscious alternative to Amazon.com.” Run by a group of young entrepreneurs, Better World sells new and donated books online and uses the profits to fund literacy programs around the globe. At Better World, Brandon feels he can succeed financially, and help the needy as the church enjoins its followers to do. “I still try to live my faith every day,” Brandon said, “even if I’m not connecting to the institution in the same way.”

His recent experience at Better World has curbed some of his nomadic restlessness, but Brandon still sees odyssey as a necessary part of his life and his relationship to the institutional church. “In many ways,” he said, “I’m still exploring myself, and part of that is pulling away from what’s been comfortable for a long time, seeing what else is there, and maybe coming back.”