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Catholic Education

Engaging, keeping new Catholic generations

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Tradition is new -- new to two generations of post-Vatican II (1962-65) American Catholics, the GenXers and the Millennials. Organized religion is old. Spirituality is new. Catholic is in -- for some -- though even for these regular Mass attendance is not necessarily in. And don’t trample on people of other religious traditions if you want to maintain the conversation with people under 40.

Can the institutional church, tripping over itself in its anxiety to hand over the faith, in fact, handle an open conversation with its younger Catholics when it has had little luck being open with their parents? It better, for despite many booming suburban parishes, U.S. Catholicism post-Vatican II, is risking a “Honey I’ve Shrunk the Church” future. Since Vatican II, the church has let the Baby Boom generation slip through its fingers, and reached for the GenX Catholics (born 1961-81) -- and missed.

Now the church faces Millennial youth (Catholics graduating from high school around the millennium) and doesn’t know quite what’s coming up. NCR decided to take a look at the current Catholic high school generation. Readers will see the extent to which catechists are attempting to meet today’s teens where they are.

In the accompanying story beginning on page 34, five Jesuit prep schools tackle the issue of continuing their Ignatian mission, knowing the day will come when there’ll be no Jesuits on the staff or faculty. The story that begins on page 38 about the Feb. 15 Los Angeles archdiocesan Religious Education Congress Youth Day reveals teens to be open about their Catholic identity -- yet Catholic on their own terms.

Millennial youth, in a nutshell, look and sound more like 1950s Catholics than anything since the ’50s. But they’re not. Researchers Thomas and Rita Tyson Walters, in a study for St. Meinrad’s Seminary focusing on priestly vocations among Millennial youth, show that Catholic high school students graduating in the year 2000 were optimistic; consider themselves religious; are in danger of being theologically illiterate; are “teleliterate”; trust their parents; and find themselves in a church of mixed messages. And they are not thinking about becoming priests or sisters.

Walters, who describes himself as “a recent survivor of raising three GenXers,” told NCR that Millennial youth “are a little more open to church teaching” than GenXers were. And anecdotal evidence at the Los Angeles archdiocesan Religious Education Congress Youth Day in Anaheim, Calif., bears that out. So does the fact that when Fr. Tony Ricard of New Orleans issued an end-of-liturgy altar call to 4,000 high schoolers to come forward if they were considering becoming a priest, sister or religious brother, more than 90 packed in around the altar.

When 10,000 archdiocesan youth willingly attend a one-day Congress, or 2 million young Catholic adults show up for a Rome World Youth Day, Catholicism appears to be engaging its younger generations. Likewise, many young Catholic adults are engaged at some level in their church. Many of the Anaheim teens were active in their parishes. College and high school volunteering for social service and social justice work has never been higher. One measure: In 1991, the Washington, D.C.-based St. Vincent Pallotti Center for Apostolic Development mailed out 35,000 copies of its annual “Connections: A directory of Volunteer Opportunities,” and last year mailed 53,000 copies nationwide.

Masking a crisis

But probe deeper and the question is whether all this activity, vital though it is, masks a crisis over how the laity might more integrally serve in the church, and indeed, what constitutes -- or prevents -- “vocation.” And whether without places to serve as respected co-ministers, these energetic thousands will stay and move the American church into something approaching a Catholic revival. The scene is set for such a revival if the producers and stage managers can encourage the actors to fully play out their dynamic Christian parts, a dynamism that was dulled down in the Baby Boom generation and practically snuffed out for GenX generation.

What’s at the heart of unrealized Catholic vitality, contends Dominican Fr. Paul J. Philibert, “is the lack of a viable theology of the priesthood of the laity.” Lay Catholics, he said, “still have absolutely no understanding of what they are called to be and do ‘as priest.’ ” Consequently, said Philibert, the parishes, the local churches, which should be “schools of holiness, are locked into the most tedious kinds of liturgical franchise.” Philibert, until last year executive director of the Notre Dame Institute for Church Life, is now prior of St. Dominic’s Abbey in St. Louis and theology professor at the Aquinas Institute.

“It’s a very desperate situation,” said William Dinges of The Catholic University of America. “It’s not a crisis of vocation -- to be called forth to ministry,” he said. “It’s a crisis surrounding the prerequisite of mandatory celibacy as a precondition of ordination. That’s the crisis.”

Robert McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, said, “I’m finding in young people a real desire to serve the church. But the role of women is an issue. One of the plus characteristics of this generation is they are very tolerant. They have an appreciation for diversity -- sexual diversity, religious diversity, cultural and ethnic diversity. So young people are looking and thinking, ‘Hmm, it’s not an inclusive church.’ Not just the girls are turned away, the guys are turned away, too,” because the women are not included.

According to McCarty, “As much as the church doesn’t want to admit it, part of this is theology. Kids don’t want a celibate lifestyle, and studies show our young people are being supported in this by their parents.”

McCarty said that in discussions with parents, he hears, “Why would I want my kids to do that when so many of the priests I’ve met seem so unhappy. I want my children to have a wonderful relationship and a fulfilling life.” And they don’t see that among the clergy they know.

“Married priesthood?” he said, “I think that would change a lot of it. But when the talk is vocations, if we’re still discussing recruitment strategies, we’re missing the point.”

These two generations of Catholics, GenXers and the Millennials, will lead the church in this country for more than half of the 21st century.

On the Boomer-GenX continuum, Dinges said, “I am resolutely convinced, after almost four years of study, that it’s a very, very serious mistake to continue working with the assumption that the agenda of Baby Boomer Catholics is the same agenda as GenX Catholics. And I say that as a Boomer.”

In their forthcoming three-and-a-half-year study, Dinges and Catholic University colleague Dean Hoge find GenXers, 20- to 39-year-old confirmed Catholics, have only a tenuous-at-best affiliation with “Catholic,” and little sense of Catholic as community.

Researchers Richard W. Flory (Biola University of La Mirada, Calif.) and Donald E. Miller (University of Southern California, Los Angeles), editors of GenX Religion (Routledge, 2000) report that “it is no mystery” the mainline denominational churches did “a terrible job of holding on to these GenX youth in the 1990s.” Miller and Arpi Misha Miller wrote in one chapter, “There’s an obvious clash of culture here -- one more rigid and traditional, the other marked by innovation and progression.”

Subtle spirituality

Further, they say, “the medium that communicates the message of these traditions has changed radically. Many young adults are pursuing a form of spirituality that is subtle, individual and hence unrecognizable to the older generations.”

The Millers report that because divorce rates doubled in the 1960s and ’70s, 40 percent of GenXers have spent time in a single-parent household. And there was “a curious phenomenon that permeated the households of even two-parent families -- a hesitation to stuff religion down their kids’ throats.”

Latch-key GenXers were “lonely, confused by the meaning of love and relationships. ‘Hanging out’ became the watchword for community,” and “group relationships were taken very seriously -- more seriously oftentimes than individual commitments.” The group was “there for them as family.”

But rarely was it a church group. “Religion is a feeling, or sometimes it is expressed as a relationship. There are religious dabblers,” they write, “but in spite of many common cultural experiences, there is no singular expression of GenX religion.”

Subjective knowledge is valued above propositional truth, the Millers write. “Filmmakers are viewed as the prophets of the age, their messages to be caught rather than taught. GenXers favor implicit over explicit messages, which is why they are sometimes inarticulate about the spirituality they embrace.”

The Millers and contributors did find some strong GenX links to religion -- in casual churches, services in unadorned, concrete floor settings, in informal liturgies, through contacts at unconventional places, Christian tattoo parlors and the Cowboy Boogie Dance Hall in Los Angeles.

Douglas Hayward in the book’s “Saturday Night in Pasadena” segment writes that GenXers are “dismayed by the discordance they see in attempts by traditional churches to preserve denominational segregation and isolation with what they see to be false boundaries and outdated identities. Baptists aren’t the only ones going to heaven, and Pentecostals don’t have a lock on the generosity of the spirit of God. Unity and tolerance are important values to GenXers.”

The Catholic generational transition, McCarty said, “has been from the ‘me’ generation to the ‘we’ generation.” Young people are famous for their intense short-term commitments in early adulthood, said McCarty, “but these days they’re delaying life commitments and they put a lot of permanent decisions on hold. Part of it, a lot of it, is that many of them come out of tough family situations. They’re not anxious to start families. It plays out when they say, ‘My childhood was so rocky that I think I want to take some time to get my life together before I make permanent commitments.’ ”

Different from GenX

Of the Millennials, St. Meinrad’s Tom Walters says, “They’re going to be different from GenX and Boomers and earlier. I think our generation had so much understanding we almost went in search of faith. The Millennial generation may be simply starting with faith -- and looking for understanding. They are a little more drawn to church teaching, a little more open to it.”

They don’t shun religion, he said, but lean to the proposition that “God is whatever works for you.” Walters quotes Mary Johnson and Hoge’s findings that parents of Millennial youth are “not cynics who reject the church,” but rather adult Catholics who affirm key Catholic doctrines yet are critical of their own lack of religious education.

The trouble is, said Walters, there’s no sign the children are receiving a better grounding in Catholicism than the parents. These kids like church -- 87 percent feel welcome in their parish. Eighty percent say their parents encourage them to be involved in church activities, and the same number think their priests are good role models. Two in three teens describe themselves as “happy and confident,” five in six as “happy.”

Catholic schools are trying hard to provide the Catholic grounding. Fr. Stephen Barber is chaplain at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, which is 87 percent Catholic students from inner-city schools and wealthy suburbs, who arrive, he said, “in a variety of states of consciousness because we draw so heavily from the Los Angeles school district.”

“The one common denominator,” he said, “is they’re hungry for the content of their faith, for something they can study. The framework they’re very skilled at is, ‘Tell me what I need to know.’ They apply that across the board: to theological disciplines, to scripture, to moral theology, to social pastoral justice.

“Get to ‘Jesuit-speak,’ ” said Barber, to the discerning elements, “How am I to live my life? How am I to be in the world? -- Ignatian questions -- and you begin to introduce doubt and gray matter. If you go along with Einstein, who said the capacity for genius is the ability to entertain ambiguity, then you’re hitting pay dirt when you present to them the reality, and they can know the content of a question, carefully reflect on it, examine their own personal experience, doing it in the company of other students. I think that’s where we can have our greatest effect on their lives.”

These youngsters from Los Angeles schools identify as Roman Catholics, he said. Loyola students who went to last year’s World Youth Day in Rome, “wanted to know everything that event meant, everything about Rome, about other Catholic young people there from all over the world. It was a confirmation for them that these kids -- as much as they resist being identified -- crave identity. For them, Roman Catholicism is their rudder. It keeps them on course.”

These Millennial Catholics may not put it in those words, said Barber, but it’s the most important identifier that they have.

Then they walk away

That should make church leaders happy and confident -- if there weren’t some troubling factors about how connected many new Catholics will remain. “One very curious thing,” said Dominican Fr. Philibert, “is that about 50 percent of all people who go through the [catechumenate to become Catholics] walk away within a few years.” And that suggests GenXers and Millennials, as adults still connected to the church, will stay only where there’s something for them, in Philibert’s words, “where there are effective parishes with strong priests, with strong programs for ministry and spirituality, and that develop vital programs for youth. These are pulling back the returning Catholics, the unchurched, pulling in the new converts,” he said.

And at the same time, he said, even next door in the same diocese, “you have people sink in the mire of a parish with no vitality.” Which points to the real crisis in the church, whether for young or older Catholic adults: “We have no normal and regular means for adult faith formation.” Add in McCarty’s point -- that the younger priests, by and large, are more conservative than the GenXers and Millenials they are called to serve and lead.

Servants and leaders can find much support in one of the best-written church documents ever, the General Directory for Catechesis, catechist Mike Carotta told fellow educators during workshops at the Feb. 15-18 Religious Education Congress that followed Youth Day. “It’s all about helping young people believe they really are the Lights of the World while maintaining,” he said, quoting the directory, “a balanced view of scripture, tradition and the magisterium’s role.”

Can the American Catholic church do that? For the Millennial kids, there’s a good chance it can -- providing it listens and learns. It’s cheering and consoling to see young Catholics celebrating in large numbers, as at their Youth Day. They’ll certainly not remain attached unless, through continued formation at the parish level, they understand that they matter. And yes, they need to know that what they do between Monday and Saturday is absolutely vital to what they celebrate on Sunday.

The crunch comes later. They’ll not stay attached unless they have a chance to live out their Catholic life -- both outside the church and in it -- as adults who have a voice, as well as a vocation in the priesthood of the laity.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large and author of New Catholics for a New Century: The U.S. Church Today and Where It’s Headed. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001