After taking numerous pregnancy tests and seeing several doctors during a three-year period when Yara Hurtado and her husband were trying to have their second child, their faith and patience were tested.
Even after Hurtado, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee, got pregnant, she miscarried four weeks later.
“Those tests can hit you hard…” the 29-year-old told myFaith. “God has a plan for everyone, and God never gives you anything you can’t handle.”
At times, Hurtado and her husband, parents of a 5-year-old son, wondered if God’s plan for them was to not have more children, but they never gave up on their faith.
As she watched people who were pregnant at the same time continue to full term, Hurtado said she and her husband struggled.
“You have those times where it’s, ‘Why did God do this?’ … and you feel bad because you believe, and you know I’m supposed to be faithful,” Hurtado said. “At the same time, you’re tested.”
But as hard as it has been to cope with their loss, they never lost faith, which isn’t true for one-third of adults under age 30 who are joining the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. – the “nones.”
The “nones” are on the rise – a growing number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion – Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, you name it.
One-fifth of the U.S. public, and one-third of adults under age 30, are religiously unaffiliated, according to a report released Oct. 9 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life – the highest percentages ever in Pew Center polling, it said.
“In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults,” with atheists and agnostics comprising nearly 6 percent and those who say they have no particular religious affiliation making up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. public.
But even the religiously unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”
Two-thirds say they belive in God, more than half say they feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, and more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”
But what is keeping people like Hurtado practicing and holding onto their Catholic faith, or any faith?
Interviews with young adults of different faiths in the Milwaukee Archdiocese showed that the report seems to ring true in its findings that a gradual softening of religious commitment among some Americans has taken place in recent decades, and that the way Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing.
Spiritual ‘more important’ than religious
Christian Kocinski, 29, is no longer practicing the faith he gained raised in a Polish Catholic family, but he’s proud of his upbringing.
“Being raised in not only a Catholic family, but a Polish Catholic family, there is a certain level of pride given to our religion and traditions,” he wrote in an email to myFaith. “I believe that what they taught me is a very important part of my life as a human being, just as much as someone on a spiritual journey.”
But like one out of 10 Americans, according to the Office of Evangelization for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Kocinski left Catholicism.
Kocinski said he’s grateful for the teachers who taught him at St. Alexander and Pius XI High School, for his family and everyone who has helped him.
“I may not be a practicing Christian any longer, but I still respect where I came from. It’s all a part of that spiritual path,” wrote Kocinski, who now practices Buddhism.
Even though he has incorporated meditation, a common practice in Buddhism, into his life, Kocinski said he still doesn’t attach himself to or consider himself a member of any religion.
“Being a spiritual person is more important to me than religion,” he wrote, noting that his views have changed as he’s matured, from being fascinated with Christianity, to being fascinated with all religions. He said many of his friends have also stopped practicing the faith they were raised with, and that sometimes he wonders if spirituality, religion and faith are fading away, though he hopes to become stronger in his practice.
“Even in my current practice, there are many times that I question the benefits of meditation, and whether I should even bother at all. We’re constantly being tested in one way or another,” he said.
Researching other religions
While Kirsten Rebholz, 22, still identifies as a Lutheran, the religion in which she was raised, she’s also still discovering where her beliefs truly lie.
She went to church often with her family until her junior year of high school when her father sustained a brain injury that left him dependent upon his family.
“He was more of the religious person in my family; he’s the one that kept us involved, and so that incident, I guess, is one of the main reasons that I don’t go very often because my dad was just kind of that person to keep me going on that track,” Rebholz said.
Faith took the backburner for her first two of five years at Mount Mary College.
But Rebholz’s faith began to grow again, thanks to a mission trip she took with Mount Mary last year called Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), an interdenominational, non-profit Christian mission affiliated with the Tennesee Conference of the United Methodist Church. She did house and yard work, and building projects for low-income residents during the day, and participated in praise and worship at night.
“I could see that there was more than just what I was raised on,” she said. “So that’s sparked my insterest to start looking into other religions.”
She found herself turning to her Bible more to explore things when she was feeling lost in the stress of life. But religion still takes the backburner, which is why Rebholz wants to discover what religious affiliation she believes in completely, and practice it regularly.
“With the people who are affiliating with their religion, but not practicing, I think it does, unfortunately, have to do with the busy schedules of life,” she said.
Finding yourself, religion
Twenty-two-year-old Anne Koenings, a graduate assistant of Student Engagement at Mount Mary College, peer tutor and test proctor was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and attended church every week with her family until she was confirmed.
Yet, she also only occasionally attends church.
“I am at a point in my life where I feel I am finding myself and therefore where my faith stands,” she wrote in an email to myFaith. “I have a few spirituality books that I try to read and journal about in my spare time. I still observe religious holidays with my family and I identify myself as a Lutheran, but I am open to all religions and interested in their views on spirituality.”
She said her parents never forced religion on her or her two older sisters, nor did they judge them for their beliefs.
“I feel that my parents have allowed us to make our own religious decisions, and I love them for that,” Koenings wrote.
She wants to discover her faith, and isn’t surprised by the increasing number of religiously unaffiliated young adults, because while some of her friends have recently found religion, others have strayed.
“Finding yourself and your religious path is not something easy. I feel these numbers represent people taking time to find themselves and they may return to the church, temple or mosque if they choose,” she wrote. “I do not feel that a person needs a specific religious affiliation to have faith or believe in God.”
Show others God through service
To Samantha Spychalla, 21, religion means knowing God and living her faith through service to others more than attending weekly Mass at St. Roman Parish in Milwaukee, but she still attends once or twice a month.
She’s in her second year as a volunteer small group leader for the confirmation class at St. Roman, which she does with her mother. She has participated in work camps for five years and will be a staff member this summer. She has coached her 13-year-old sister’s volleyball team at St. Roman for three years and will return next year to coach when her sister is in eighth grade.
“Service is a really big part of my life and that’s just kind of how I show others God and present myself as a child of God, and that’s how I stay closer to God,” Spychalla said. “I mean, it’s really more of like living out my faith and not necessarily going to church and stuff like that. I mean, I do go to church still, but it’s just not a weekly thing.”
Spychalla went to church a lot as a child, with her grandmother, parents and through Catholic school Masses, but stopped going as much while a student at Pius XI High School because of homework, her involvement in things like golf and stage crew, and having a job her junior and senior year.
“Going to church really I don’t feel is like a major thing for like teens that are younger than me and stuff, like it’s not a big part of their life right now because they do have so many other extracurriculars and homework and everything so it’s hard for them to go,” said Spychalla, who wants to get more involved in her church and in doing youth group activities.
She also said peer pressure might be a reason young people may choose not to participate in their faith, based upon what she’s experienced with her confirmation students.
“I just see so much potential in them and they don’t see it or they don’t want to see it or…they’re scared of what their friends will think if they say they want to be confirmed or if they say they want to go to church and stuff – it’s a big peer pressure thing,” she said.
Some don’t buy it
Fr. John Burns, associate pastor at Christ King Parish, Wauwatosa, told myFaith that he doesn’t “buy the ‘spiritual but not religious’ dichotomy.”
“I think it’s a false distinction. It’s really just saying, ‘I basically believe in God but I refuse to do it in any way other than the way I want to,’” he wrote in an email to myFaith. “The mass of people who use this as their mantra are, ultimately, never able to really say that their ‘spirituality’ is fulfilling because they have to create it themselves.”
He said that people can’t make themselves happy.
“A secular age will always try to put God in a box and demand that he fit the people’s notions of who he is and how we should be in relation to him,” he wrote. “And this, unfortunately, is not reconcilable with what we have received by Divine Revelation! Christ showed us the way to heaven.”
According to the Pew Research survey, religious change begins early in life – most people left their childhood faith before age 24, and a large majority before age 36.
“Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated are much less likely than lifelong Catholics to have attended Mass regularly or to have had very strong faith as teenagers,” it said.
Church knows reality
The church is aware of these statistics, and that Catholics are leaving to join unaffiliated and the second largest faith group – Protestant.
Pope Benedict XVI made evangelization and reviving the Christian faith in secular societies a priority of his pontificate.
And the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Office of Evangelization offers training for evangelization. A pamphlet from the office explains that while the church’s work, message and essential mission of evangelization don’t change, the circumstances “demand a new approach.”
Hope is found, according to the pamphlet, in knowing that many of the people who are unaffiliated or haven’t been raised with faith, are still exploring their options.
Hurtado feels strongly about practicing her faith, and being actively involved in her religion, but she had a period of time after confirmation when she stopped going to church for a couple of years.
When she began dating her husband, they went to church together and decied they needed to keep going or the next generation would lose the Catholic faith, values and traditions.
The statistics and views that religion isn’t as important today are worrisome now that she’s a mother.
“It might sound selfish, but I want everything I’m teaching my son to be around,” Hurtado admitted she’s worried because many families don’t pass religion on anymore like her mother did.
When she wasn’t at school, she was usually at church, whether she was attending catechism classes or tagging along with her mom to her prayer group. They also had a lot of family time on Sundays.
And she didn’t have a choice.
“I remember when I was growing up, you didn’t have a choice – if your parents said you are going to church, you were going to church,” said Hurtado, who sings in the church choir. “My mom’s not from here, and she was still old-school.”
Hurtado plans to do the same for her son.
“I know that my son is probably going to hate me for it,” she laughed, “but I really don’t care.”
St. Francis of Assisi Parish encourages members to invite friends along to experience Mass with them, according to Hurtado.
“If it’s easy to invite them over for a sleepover, it’s just as easy to invite them to church,” Hurtado said, admitting that she has been turned down many times, but it’s better to extend the invitation without pushing someone.
“I am strong in my views, but I would never try to convert someone,” she said.
Religion is important to Hurtado’s family, and she’ll do her part to keep it that way.
“It’s really been important to me and that’s something that I want to pass on,” she said. “When I was younger I was taught that without your church, your religion, your community, God and and having that faith, you don’t have anything to stand on, and the things that you do away from the church and away from that community need to be based on something.”