I recommend a challenging and thoughtful book, “Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of and Gone from the Church,” researched and written by a group of sociologists and published by Oxford Press.
The authors present voluminous data regarding the religious beliefs, attitudes and practices of teenage and young adult Catholics in the United States; it is a sober and challenging landscape, yet not without hope.
The book contextualizes the current challenges of retaining young Catholics in the faith by examining the converging dynamics in the 1960s which diminished the reach and effectiveness of Catholic culture, including the dramatic decline of priests and religious engaged in Catholic education, the confusion that often accompanied the implementation of Vatican II, the loss of a clear and consistent catechesis, the cultural and sexual revolutions which led to an increased secularity, relativism and questioning of authority.
These rapid and fundamental changes left parents ill-equipped to articulate and pass on the faith to their children. We now have at least two full generations of Catholics who do not know the basics of the faith and who have abandoned the practice of it in droves.
As a result, most Catholics of the millennial generation – those born in the 1980s and early 1990s – do not see the practice of the faith as essential for their lives, view one religion to be as good as another, see no inherent need for the church or the sacraments and cannot articulate a coherent spiritual vision of life’s meaning and purpose.
In many ways, none of this is their fault, yet it presents a challenge to everyone who cares about the spiritual life, health and salvation of our young people and the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Over the course of five years, the authors tracked a group of Catholic teenagers as they moved into young adulthood. Their conclusions should cause us grave concern, inspire us to rethink how we do evangelization, catechesis and adult formation, and give us some hope.
By their early 20s, roughly two-thirds of the Catholic youth interviewed had disengaged from the church, either through an active rejection of the faith, switching to another church affiliation or just dropping out of church life all together.
The remaining third still had some connection to the church, from occasional Mass attendance to a highly engaged and dynamic faith life.
Here are the three predominant factors that most clearly predicted which actively Catholic teenagers would remain so as young adults.
1. The teenager’s parents were committed and practicing Catholics or if not, another spiritual adult served a mentoring role in the teen’s life. The importance and influence of the father living his faith was off the statistical charts.
2. The teen had learned and internalized the basic teachings and values of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church through effective and clear catechesis, ongoing conversations with faithful adults and consistent modeling of the faith by others.
3. The teen had incorporated and consistently practiced weekly Mass, Scripture reading and personal prayer in daily life. These factors by no means serve as an absolute guarantee of continued Catholic practice, but young people who had these three elements consistently in their teenage years were four times more likely to still be active Catholics in their young adulthood years.
These conclusions are largely unsurprising and self-evident, but they challenge us to think how we engage, form and inspire our youth to take their rightful and essential role as disciples of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church.
We need to think, plan and be busy about the following ways of helping our young people to grow in their relationship with Christ and the church.
1. Better form and equip parents to know, live and love the Catholic faith, and give them the needed knowledge, skills and practices to pass the faith on to their children. Family-based religious education programs, creative and simple adult catechesis, parenting resources, homilies oriented toward family issues can help in this essential endeavor.
2. Our wonderful and dedicated Catholic school teachers and catechists need ongoing and effective formation in the theology and spirituality of the faith as well as pedagogical training that will equip them to truly reach our youth. We cannot simply hand them a textbook and wish them luck. “Sustaining the Mission,” an ongoing catechetical and formation program for our school teachers comes to mind here.
3. Parishes need to actively seek out and engage their registered families who do not regularly attend Sunday Mass and/or do not send their children to either a Catholic school or a religious education program. We need to be loving, welcoming, fearless and persistent in our attempts to draw these families into the life of the parish.
4. We need to effectively teach and model for our children how to read, interpret and pray with the Scriptures and how to develop an active prayer life. Meditation, lectio divina, the rosary, eucharistic adoration and devotions to the saints are effective ways to inculcate the spiritual life in our youth.
“Young Catholic America” challenges us to better engage our youth in the critical years of their faith development in corporate and personal ways. We need to ask how our parishes can better accomplish this essential task, but we also need to personally help, mentor and support the youth in our lives to grow in faith.
The book is not all challenge and discouragement; it points to a numerically small but spiritually powerful group of young adults who live their faith, embrace varied vocations within the church and effectively evangelize their peers. We just need to increase their numbers!