Listening to Young Adult Catholics
by Robin Ryan, C.P.
During the summer of 2009, eighty-eight men and women in their twenties and thirties from all parts of the United States participated in young adult conferences offered by Catholics on Call. Catholics on Call is a national vocation discovery program at Catholic Theological Union (Chicago) which reaches out to young adult Catholics who are considering a life of service in the Church as a member of a religious community, priest or lay ecclesial minister. What are young adult Catholics saying to us today?
Studies of young adults show that their social situation is different from that of young adults thirty or forty years ago. In 2007 Robert Wuthnow, a distinguished sociologist of religion at Princeton University, published an illuminating study of the religious practice of young adults entitled “After the Baby Boomers.” Wuthnow points out that there is a longer period of vocational and career exploration for most young adults today. Men and women get married today on average about four years later than they did in 1965. They also have greater job mobility, with many exploring not only different positions but distinct lines of work.
Thus there is an extended period of single life and vocational exploration that can be a confusing and unsettling experience for some young adults. Some speak of the phenomenon of “quarter-life crisis” – an experience of feeling adrift and alone for men and women in their middle to later twenties, many of whom have finished college but have not settled down into a definite vocation or a particular community.
More financial pressures
Wuthnow and others also describe the financial pressures felt by men and women in their twenties and thirties. Recent statistics show that today’s young adults are experiencing lower wage growth and greater economic inequality than young adults of a generation earlier. The responsibility to pay off student loans presents a further challenge. Married young adults often comprise dual-income families – a situation that imposes pressures on time and energy. While living in an affluent society, young adults do face significant financial pressures which impact upon the choices they make.
Wuthnow observes that while there are many institutional supports in Church and society for young people through their college years, there are few such supports for young adults after college. There is, for example, a need for good mentoring in the professional and spiritual realms, which young adults often struggle to find. Wuthnow concludes, “We cannot hope to be a strong society if we invest resources in young people until they are eighteen or twenty and then turn them out to find their way entirely on their own.”
Most young adult Catholics, even those who participate in the life of the church infrequently, like being Catholic and readily identify themselves as such. There seems to be a Catholic sensibility that endures with most young adults even when their practice of faith is sporadic. There are core Catholic beliefs that most young adults readily espouse, including belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus, affirmation of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, devotion to Mary as the Mother of God, and the obligation to show active concern for the poor. Many young adults struggle with the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, the role of women in the Church, and ecclesial requirements for marriage.
Many young adults express a desire for a deeper knowledge of the Catholic tradition. In a recent study of active young adult Catholics, the late Dean Hoge and Marti Jewell concluded, “Whether self-identified as traditional or liberal, young adults want to know more about their faith.” Young adult Catholics often say that the religious education which they received was inadequate. They claim that it was long on process and short on content. These sentiments are confirmed by researchers who investigate the knowledge of the faith that young adult Catholics actually have. In many cases, it reflects a minimal familiarity with the Catholic tradition. They genuinely appreciate programs like “Catholics on Call” and “Theology on Tap,” where they can learn more about their faith in a welcoming environment.
Young adults tend to be disheartened by the polarization they perceive among middle-aged and older Catholics. Categorizations of Catholic positions as “pre-Vatican II / post-Vatican II” or “conservative / liberal” do not have much relevance to them. In his book “Seeds of Hope: Young Adults and the Catholic Church in the United States,” Tim Muldoon observes that young adults easily become disillusioned by protracted battles among Catholics of differing perspectives. They are more interested in building a church community founded in love seeking justice.
Some of the young adult Catholics who are most active in the Church are attracted to traditional practices like Eucharistic adoration, the rosary and other forms of devotional prayer. This is puzzling to some pastoral ministers, who wonder whether these inclinations represent a “throwback” to practices of yesteryear. It seems, however, that these practices reflect a discovery of aspects of the Catholic tradition with which they were previously unfamiliar and which they find helpful in their relationship with God. For example, my experience of Eucharistic adoration with young adults suggests to me that this form of prayer provides a respite in a noisy world, communicates a sense of the mystery of God, and offers an opportunity for communal prayer in a form that is non-threatening.
Young adults want to be invited into active participation in the Church. They often feel isolated and anonymous in parish communities, where they sometimes have few friends. If they have been actively involved in college campus ministry programs and then move to a parish that has little outreach to young adults, it is easy for them to get lost or simply drift away. It is very important for all Catholics to make a special effort to welcome young adults to the parish community and to invite them to become more deeply involved in the life of the parish.
Most Catholics are painfully aware that vocations to religious life and priesthood have declined significantly in recent years. While that is certainly the case, it is wrong to conclude that young adults are not interested in service in the Church. The recent study by Hoge and Jewell mentioned above indicated that most young adult Catholics had positive attitudes about religious life, priesthood and lay ecclesial ministry. For example, about half of the men who were surveyed said that they had seriously considered becoming a priest, and about a third of the men and women reported that they had seriously considered a vocation as a religious sister or brother. At Catholics on Call, we have found that when young adults are offered cogent presentations on vocations to ministry in the Church in a pressure-free atmosphere, they come to a deeper appreciation of these possibilities and are willing to give them serious consideration. They even feel a certain excitement about the ministerial opportunities that are open to them.
Those of us who are “older” Catholics need to make the effort to listen seriously to the concerns and aspirations of Catholics in their twenties and thirties. As a Church we need to do a better job in reaching out to this age group and inviting them into the life of the community. If we do that, we will encounter men and women with great energy who inspire us in our own faith.
Fr. Robin Ryan, C.P. Ph.D. teaches ecclesiology at Catholic Theological Union and is Director of Catholics on Call. More helpful information is available at www.catholicsoncall.org.