Odyssey Catholics

Young and restless

Nicole Shirilla
Nicole Shirilla keeps a small plastic rose in her Pittsburgh apartment, a memento of a Christian community in Rwanda. It reminds her of her travels in developing countries and of the winding road that led her to medical school.

For Shirilla, like Brandon, her journey as a young adult began at the University of Notre Dame. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education, she taught high school religion in Baton Rouge, then returned to South Bend to help run a vocation initiative program for teenage and young adult Catholics. She traveled to India with a friend, where she visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. She went to Uganda with a group from her alma mater, and to Rwanda with a group from Catholic Relief Services. Later, on the basis of her skills as a video editor, Catholic Relief Services asked Shirilla to work with them in Baltimore, then flew her to Sri Lanka in 2004 to shoot documentary footage of the island’s tsunami recovery.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” the Youngstown, Ohio, native said with a laugh.

Googling God

Mike Hayes, who works with Paulist Ministries in New York, marvels at the abilities of multi-talented young adults like Shirilla and Brandon, and also at their restless search for answers. “They’re so good at so many things,” Hayes said. “They know there are unlimited choices. … They get impatient, and decide after a short time, ‘Well, I didn’t figure it out along this path, time to go try something else.’ ”

Hayes is one of the founders of BustedHalo.com, an influential Web site for “spiritual seekers in their 20s and 30s.” He also recently published a book, Googling God (Paulist Press), about ministering to Millennials and Gen Xers.

“Young people make short-term commitments very well,” he said. “They do Teach for America or Jesuit Volunteer Corps for a year or two, then they move on. But the work is meaningful for them as Catholics. They don’t just get into social justice because the programs are short-term. They also do it because Jesus said to do it.”

“Moving around and traveling to these places have shaped my faith,” Shirilla explained. “Going to Mass in Rwanda, and spending time in India and in Sri Lanka … those have been some very real experiences of a universal church.”

Called to Commit

Even so, Shirilla concedes that she began feeling a call to commit to something more fully. Medicine had always intrigued her, and though she had none of the requisite science coursework, Shirilla determined to pursue it. It wasn’t an easy adjustment.

“There’s a certain amount of sacrifice involved in [commitments],” she said. “One of the things I had to give up in my decision was my freedom of options. By choosing medical school, I had to say no to a lot of things. And when you enjoy having so many options, there’s a fine line between exciting and paralyzing. In time, I saw that unless I chose, I really couldn’t … make a difference in the world.”

Shirilla was pleased to find a wide range of ages in her medical class at the University of Pittsburgh. Many like her had taken a few years—or longer—to explore. At the university’s Newman Center, she found the sense of community that she feels is necessary for her faith. “That was the other vital thing I took from all these places I’ve been,” Shirilla said.

Now she’s deliberating whether to register at a nearby parish but wants the sense of community to be there first. “I can’t imagine surviving without that,” she adds. “I need that connection.”

Ed Fians
Ed Fians attributes some of his generation’s noncommittal tendencies to the opportunities they were afforded as children and regards that abundance of options as both blessing and curse.

“We were allowed to explore for so long,” Fians said, “without having to craft ourselves into a very specific thing. That’s a great environment to grow up in, but when you’re 22 you think, ‘What now? I’ve never had to choose anything but my major!’ ”

Fians suspects many Millennials, accustomed to structure and support, simply freeze when they leave college for a confusing and sometimes hostile world. “A lot of people just feel lost.”

Growing up in Trumbull, Conn., Fians saw the church as one of those important support structures. “Everything I love about myself and what I do comes from the Catholicism of my childhood,” he claimed. “It’s the community I was raised in.”

Diminishing Relevance

But once Fians moved away, and as he moved again and again, the church’s relevance seemed to diminish for him. At a time when his own conscience was forming and questions formed with it, Fians stopped going to Mass because he says his faith stopped being a dialogue.

“It didn’t feel natural anymore to go when I was back home, either,” Fians said. “I didn’t belong to the community.”

That sense of community was rocked even further when his family’s pastor was removed for sexual misconduct.

“It put a real human face on faith,” he said, “and it wasn’t pretty.”

According to Catholic University’s D’Antonio, these factors in Fians’ departure aren’t uncommon among Millennials. “If you provide young people with a church where they can get married and baptize their children, most of them will never leave,” D’Antonio said. “But those who do think of leaving are usually repelled by the top-down ecclesiology or issues like the sexual abuse scandal.”

“They’re spiritually hungry, but they want a place where they feel nurtured, not just where they’re told they are wrong. If they think they’re going to be yelled at, or put to sleep or just asked for money, they’re not going.”

Though he has traveled less internationally than Brandon or Shirilla, Fians has uprooted himself the most frequently of the three. Since he graduated from Boston University in 2000, he has lived in Boston, his Connecticut hometown, New York and Chicago. In those places, Fians has worked at a deli, with a publishing house, as a copyeditor and journalist, and most recently was a graduate student. Soon he’ll move back to New York, where his girlfriend lives.

Floating Millennials

Several recent surveys show a growing number of postcollegiate Millennials floating, like Fians, between higher education and employment. Fians, who toyed with returning to school for years, enrolled in 2006 at the University of Chicago for a master’s program tailored to people like himself—uncertain 20-somethings.

“At the end of a year,” Fians said, “I had another degree and a whole new set of questions.”

But the program gave one important answer, which is that he wanted to stick with academia. Next fall he’ll apply to doctoral programs in performance and theater studies.

Though in some ways Fians feels distant from the religion of his youth, he still values his Catholic background, and notices it surfacing unmistakably in decisions of his odyssey years. “It happens while trying to work around my commitment phobia,” he explained, “and when wrestling with that sense of calling.”

Now that he has confidence in a career track, and prepares to pursue a committed relationship in a familiar city, Fians finds himself looking forward to when he has offspring of his own—a development that feels far less distant to him now than in his earlier, more nomadic days. He remains uncertain about a return to the Catholic church, yet when he considers whether to raise his child in a faith tradition, he becomes noticeably nostalgic.

Spiritually Hungry

“It would have to be Catholicism,” Fians said. “But at the same time, I can’t drop my kid off, I’d have to walk in the door with her. That means I would have to come back to the church, and what does that mean? Honestly, right now, I think I would want to raise my child in the church. I think I would start going back—and I wonder what I would find.”

Indeed, wonders Darrell Paulsen, a church professional well acquainted with Catholic Millennials, what will they find if and when they decide it’s time to engage more deeply with their church? Paulsen, who coordinates marriage preparation at the University of Notre Dame, hears frequent complaints from the young professional couples he directs. He knows that the Millennials are unlikely to hang around if they don’t find what they need, and parishes will be the losers.

“Lots of parishes put up walls to participation for young people,” he said. Among other problems, “they give them trouble for being away from the church, or for cohabitating.”

Yet, Paulsen insists, parishes can’t afford not to welcome these Catholics at a significant moment of “settling,” such as marriage, baptism of a child or the decision to put down roots. “People are out there,” he said. “They’re spiritually hungry, but they want a place where they feel nurtured, not just where they’re told they are wrong. If they think they’re going to be yelled at, or put to sleep or just asked for money, they’re not going.”

That, Paulsen suggests, makes for one of the few easy choices in a Millennial’s young life.

This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. Reprinted with permission.