Christian Smith: The situation with US Catholic youth actually is grim

Here’s bad news, but news we simply must face up to in our ministries and service to the Gospel: “The situation with US Catholic youth actually is grim,” says Christian Smith at the National Catholic Reporter.

Smith states well the reasons for his analysis, with methodological explanation for why his analysis differs from more optimistic folks such as William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Mary Gautier, and Katherine Meyer. I’ve long wondered why some of the folks at CARA so consistently downplay the demographic problems and seem to spin things to say what one would rather hear. To be honest, it’s sometimes felt like denial and just happy talk.

Here’s Smith:

[W]e find (and will publish in a forthcoming report) that fully one-half of youth who self-identified as Catholic as teenagers no longer identified as Catholics 10 years later in their 20s. That is a 50 percent loss through attrition in one decade. If that number is not grim, I do not know what is.

Smith offers explanation for this conclusion:

The survey studies of D’Antonio, Davidson, Gautier and Meyer are good for comparing differences in attitudes among existing adult American Catholic across generations (at least, the minority that is willing to answer surveys). But they are simply incapable of addressing and answering the question of the church’s more recent (lack of) success in forming and retaining its youth.

I’m afraid that Smith’s bleak portrayal fits entirely with my impressions. My impressions are merely anecdotal, but quite extensive.

Undergrads in our university – and they’re mostly from the Midwest but also from across the country and world – are in a different, less engaged place than even 5 years ago in how they talk about prayer and worship and church involvement. When they turn in essays on their required attendance at 2 Catholic parish Masses, more and more of them write, “This service was at [5pm / 8am / 11 am], and at this time of day it was mostly older people and not many my age there.” When the National Catholic Youth Choir sings at parish Masses on tour across the Midwest, I look out from the sanctuary and see mostly people in their 60s and 70s and 80s, with but a sprinkling of younger folks. A diocesan priest tells me that in his 10 years in a parish, it feels like the whole parish got 10 years older. Parish musicians who attend all the Masses in a large parish report that the parish has 100 confirmations annually and hence about 600 high-schoolers, but only a few dozen of these are seen at all the weekend Masses.

I take into account that it is here in the Midwest and on the East Coast (“out east,” as we say in these parts) that the Catholic Church is shrinking, but the growth is in the South and the West, and among immigrant and ethnic groups that I have less contact with. I also hear of really vibrant parishes with spirited youth involvement. There is that, too.

But I also hear from colleagues in all parts of the US – people in academia, musical and liturgical ministry, publishing, and so forth – things like “Out of all my nieces and nephews, only one is a church-goer,” or “Of my six kids, all products of Catholic education, three are not having their children baptized.”

I get it that the plural of anecdote is not data. But Smith’s work suggests that the data does perhaps coincide with my anecdotal impressions. I’d rather be wrong in this case, but alas, I fear that I’m not.

*            *            *            *            *

How to respond?

Our response has to be spiritual, first of all, and it must come from a place of trust in God and lead us to a place of hope.

We must open our hearts to a future very different from what we expected or would have chosen, but a future nonetheless with its own unexpected graces and blessings and opportunities.

We must focus on the Kingdom first and the Church second – which of course is something salutary to do at all times, whatever the demographics. This helps us get beyond mere number-counting and simplistic claims about “what works.” It remains ever  important to go back, again and again, to the Gospel parables of Our Lord and to put on the mind of Christ.


  1. If you provide something worthwhile you will attract them. Our local high school”s Catholic count would be 850 out of (1,600 total) in HS. While certainly has drop outs to the faith it’s mainly because their parents really didn’t care, never took them to Mass and basically dropped out too.

    However 20% of that over-all number of Catholic kids at the above school does Adoration, youth retreats, ministry and brings others to Christ. It’s a struggle, it’s work, but if you create a genuine community and challenge them to rise to Jesus’ and the Church’s destiny for them, they will. They know we’re here to challenge, to support, and to forgive them. That makes a huge difference.

    Just today I opened our local paper and of the “Top Ten” ranked kids in the HS five specifically mentioned our parish in their “what made me who I am today” essay. It can be done take heart!

  2. I agree, the situation with the youth looks bad but we are trying our best here at IHM to inculcate the Faith in souls, one by one. This pro life video, narrated by students of our school, has brought in many encouraging comments and is claimed to be an inspiration to others.
    “In the ‘Cradle of Liberty’—A Tale of Two Tragedies”

  3. I am a high school theology teacher. I work at a typical Catholic High school with an enrollment in the 350’s. I find that if we engage their imagination and give them an opportunity to experience God through prayer, reflection, and action, they will respond. I think there is an excellent opportunity with Pope Francis’ encyclical to teach our students about the importance of the environment, pray and reflect with them, and then be active. I hope to utilize this encyclical this coming year. I am also the moderator for our pro-life club, which has all those components that I described above. We meet for prayer, help out at a local women’s home, and close to 50 students each year come on the March for Life.

    One of the things that I struggle with is the current curriculum, which really doesn’t promote discipleship and engaging them in coming to a regular prayer life. When I attended Catholic High school twenty years ago, there was very little theological reflection or study of the Church’s teaching or scripture. It seems that this new curriculum has swung in the complete opposite direction. Lots more doctrine now, but little reflection on experience. We try to offer seniors elective options to compensate for this, but we are still far away from the ideal.

    There is of course a ton more we can do, but I think we need to be willing to engage them in those ways.

  4. I found this article by Skip Masback sobering reading too, in that he details how rates of depression, anxiety, aimless drift, and attempted suicide among teens have grown at the same time that church involvement has declined. You can’t say that one caused the other, or that all adolescents are afflicted, but it’s a convergence that ought to concern adults in every Christian community.
    It’s not just that we (churches) need them (youth), although we do. It’s also pretty clear that kids suffer from the absence of what churches (normatively) provide: an authoritative community that reflects and transmits meaning in life and over the long haul.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Re the point about depression, anxiety, drift, and the like. I’m a psychology professor. A paper by Oishi, Diener (and others?) in 2014 found a positive correlation of national income (per capita) with life satisfaction, but a negative correlation with purpose. Folks in wealthier countries reported less purpose and were more likely to commit suicide. And…this was mediated by a drop in religious practice. The Church offers people a place in which they can consider life purpose in a way that is difficult elsewhere, so I suspect you are right in worrying about the consequences of dropping participation rates.

      I wonder if part of the problem is the ocean in which we are swimming–with more money, more power to control our lives, more distractions from money, more disruption of social structures from the mobility that money affords religion falls to the wayside.

  5. On the other hand, the article that critiqued Smith’s book and that Smith critiques here does seem to have a different metric for assessing the changes. Interestingly, they accuse Smith of using a “compliance model” and focusing on criteria that are too narrow in order to tell who affiliates and who does not. Here is their view:

    “In our view, a seismic shift has occurred in the church — a shift from the compliance-based approach of the 1940s and ’50s to the conscience-based approach of more recent decades. As a result, young Catholics still think of themselves as Catholic, and they are more religious than many older people realize, but, compared to their pre-Vatican II grandparents, they are more likely to be Catholic on their own terms.”

    I wish Smith’s rebuttal had offered some examples from his in-depth interviews to fill out the picture.

    1. @Rita Ferrone: Likewise, on all points.

      Given Smith’s methodology, I don’t know how he justifies including “more recent” in this phrase (cited above in the post): “the question of the church’s more recent (lack of) success in forming and retaining its youth.”

      He is absolutely right in saying that cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies ask and answer different questions. By saying that the problem of forming and retaining youth is “more recent”, however, he seems to be asserting something that is not known. I haven’t read his book, but his article doesn’t mention a comparison of his 50% retention figure with the results of longitudinal studies of earlier generations. This may be because no such studies exist, in which case his claim that this is a “more recent” problem is just that — a claim, not a demonstrated fact. It’s a claim put forward by a whole lot of people, in the Catholic church and in other denominations as well, but to my knowledge, it is not supported by extensive research.

      Not to downplay the concerns raised about what is happening to the other 50%, but I find all too many researchers willing to look at some golden age through rose colored glasses in order to stoke concerns about the present.

      But there is a way to get at this data, if a researcher wants to look for it. My parents attended a Lutheran high school as teens, and went to their 50th high school class reunion several years ago and commented on what their various classmates were doing these days. Some had continued in the Lutheran church, while others had left for another denomination, and still others left the church completely. A study of cohorts like these high school classes would get around Smith’s complaint that a cross-sectional study leaves out those who have left the church — but to my knowledge, no such study has been undertaken.

      If I’m wrong about that, I’d love to have someone point to such studies.

    2. @Rita Ferrone:
      I’d like to hear more about what this supposed “conscience-based” approach of young Catholics is. Is the claim that they’re just as engaged, but in a different way? Or rather that their “conscience-based” engagement means not going to Mass so much, not participating in the sacraments so much, not being part of the parish so much? (I have my suspicions, as you can probably tell.) If it is all that, why don’t we just be honest and call it “less engaged Catholics who still retain the name”? “Conscience-based” makes it sound so noble, so mature.

      And from the other side, “compliance-based” makes it sound like it’s all merely external, rote-like, going through the motions. (It sure could be that for some people, I don’t deny that.) It’d be interesting to know whether the compliance is, rather, to actually doing things in the church like going to Mass and being part of a community.

      If the data says less involvement, I wish we could be honest about that and not put labels on the more-involved and less-involved (compliant vs. conscientious) that mask the seismic shifts underway.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        My information, alas, is only as good as my source, which is the NCR stories. I have not read either book. From what I read, I think the issue was creed over discipline. These kids are not non-believers: God, Jesus, the Trinity, prayer, life after death, it’s all OK by them, and part of their worldview. If they don’t go to Mass or obey the rules of sexual conduct — as many Catholics don’t — they don’t worry about it as we would have done in my era. The question is whether their faith is bound to fade. A lot of cultures pass along an anti-clerical attitude and are still devotionally Catholic. Is this what’s happening? I couldn’t say.

  6. After high school, they’re at an age when friends are still all-important but they’re free to sleep in on Sundays. All the religious education in the world isn’t going to pull them away from Sunday brunch with friends. Even a spiritually mature college student could easily end up at the evangelical megachurch instead.

    There isn’t much we can do to force parents to bring their kids to Mass but for those who are already at Mass, it’s a shame that they stop as soon as they move into the dorms. Facilitating that transition needs work. Even more so after college when they may have to find a new parish and attend by themselves. Catholics need to do a better job at integrating church life and social life. Coffee and donuts ain’t cutting it. I heard a Korean priest once say that in Korea, everyone envies the Catholics for being able to organize activities (always involving food) outside of Mass yet it’s changing as food, even free food, isn’t as appealing to younger people anymore.

  7. Let’s not discount a shifting soteriology (paralleling, a bit, the compliance-to-conscience modality). There’s been a shift from exclusivity (no salvation outside the [Roman Catholic] church) to normativity (all religions have truths, but ours are the most truthy) to a kind of equanimity – if I go to Mass, or to the megachurch, or the Buddhist temple, or commune with nature alone, it’s all pretty much the same. (I realize some will call that “relativism” and not equanimity.) And don’t blame Vatican II – this was already underway, even more in Europe, prior to the Council.
    Reading the various “Why (are you [still]) Catholic?” things on the web, I’ve seen very little reference to salvation, souls, eternity, and so on. It’s difficult to admit, but we have to be open to the possibility of previous generations being Roman Catholic to some extent out of fear of damnation, and/or their having been Roman Catholic “against” being something else.
    No matter how vibrant and successful our parish/diocesan youth programs may be, what happens to those youth in those programs once they are out on their own and meet and fall in love with a good and moral “None” or a “Done” – which is happening with greater frequency – will their spiritual lives be disciplined enough to maintain observance, or “convert” a partner/spouse? Or what happens when those youth who were immersed in that wonderful ministry experience end up somewhere with NO similar parish experience available? Or when they run into the vast, inflexible web of regulations and doctrinal concerns?
    Who’s going to be the first to tell them all that God will condemn them to eternal damnation and hellfire if they go their own way?

    1. @Alan Hommerding:
      You bet I would tell a Catholic family member or friend who was considering leaving the Church they were putting their soul at risk. I would also remind them of the treasures they would be leaving behind, most of all Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments.

      1. @Jay Edward:
        I wonder what the response to you would be.
        (I really do mean that – I wonder; I have no way of knowing. It just seems that – especially for most anyone under 30 – the concepts of salvation/damnation are nebulous at best. Ask Hallmark – everyone goes to heaven.)

      2. @Alan Hommerding:
        It might or might not stop them from leaving. It might plant a seed that got them to come back down the road. There are a lot of reverts who return to the faith knowing more about the Christianity and the Scriptures in particular than when they left. If people aren’t being fed as Catholics, they will go to where they are fed. “To those who have been given much, much is expected.” And it isn’t just Hallmark that promotes the “everyone goes to Heaven” meme, a lot of priests in the Catholic Church won’t touch the Last Four Things. Funerals become canonizations and the idea we need to be praying for the souls in Purgatory dismissed as being antiquated.

  8. The youth crisis is partially manufactured by clergy and religious who do not cultivate intelligence and thought in the young. Put another way, little intellectual food, and especially in-depth material about Mass and the sacraments, are placed before young people. Many young people, and especially those who show an interest in theology or Latin, are casualties in the rush towards gimmicks which are not profound expressions of liturgy (ie. LifeTeen or the “rock Mass”.)

    When I showed an interest in Latin study in my first year of the subject, I asked the parish monsignor for more information about preconciliar liturgy. He angrily brushed me aside, saying that the Church had no more use for Latin. I ended up worshiping with crypto-Lefebvrists. Wouldn’t it have been better for the monsignor to take a bit more time and find me a priest who knew Latin well, or even find additional texts for me to read? Was it better that I entered an underground quasi-legal community than stay within the licit fold? I suppose that the monsignor and his priests would rather have me worship with reactionaries. After all, any time I asked a theological question I was merely told to go to a banal youth activity where “God loves you” was repeated in a mantra-esque style.

    Smart young adults need the mature food of adult believers. Some clergy and religious recoil from this idea. Could it be the fear that an educated young adult might well leave a particular church?

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      I do think that if religious education programs are little more than arts and crafts, skits and service projects with a veneer of Catholicism on them, the faith won’t take root. If it’s not important to the parents who are the primary educators of their children to reinforce the importance of having the faith at home, but RE is seen as going through the motions to get your ticket punched and make your sacraments because that’s what everyone does, it’s no surprise people drop out after a generation or two. I do think it is a partially manufactured crisis, generations that came before us knew how to pass the faith on, we seem to have unlearned out to go so.

  9. I may change my mind in the next 5-10 years, but I think that there is little one can do to shift the trend away from attrition. As long as America has a spiritual marketplace, employment requires people to move more frequently, and hierarchical structures are reduced, people will choose where they want to worship. There are fewer village elders to persuade us of the consequences to come if we leave the tribe.

    I often encourage Orthodox pastors to be grateful for the people they have and love them, without expecting huge numerical returns on pastoral programs. If you build it, they might not come. Invest in those who do and love them through everything.

    I do not see this as relativism, either; just sanity.

  10. There can be no doubt that the average Catholic teen does not know his Faith as those who lived in previous times when Catholic schools were flourishing and Catholic Sisters were teaching and leading by good example and self-sacrifice. The majority of teens today don’t even know their basic prayers such as the Rosary or even Hail Mary and Our Father, because they are not taught at home.

    I make it a point to stress to high school students the fact that it is a Mortal Sin to miss Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and if one dies in that state, he or she will go to Hell. I tell them, “You know this to be true but as soon as you graduate, you will be tempted to deny this by your acquaintances. So I want you to recall what I’m telling you today and what you once knew to be true.”

  11. Most parishes have Youth Ministry programs and many schools are ramping up their religious education to include a deeper exploration of theological concepts while still integrating experiential aspects of the faith. It is in young adulthood that we are losing them. I know of parishes where there might be a Young Adult Ministry, but it is rudderless, usually with no staff member to provide guidance, organization, and context. Left to their own devices, they program such bizarre events that only the die-hards are willing to attend them. But it’s not their fault. There appears to be a vast emptiness in local, regional, national (maybe global?) programming for young adults which would connect them to each other, to their faith, and to their local church. Although not a young adult for many years, I know many of them, and they are spinning aimlessly trying to accomplish this on their own. They need help, but this is a generation that is not getting the attention it needs from us. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I’ve got lots of questions.

  12. Importantly, the rejection of bright young persons who ask challenging questions destroys vocations. Why should a young man enter a diocesan or an order seminary if his questions are consistently rebuffed. Why would a young woman study to be a religious sister and theologian if her questions are ignored?

    I am fully convinced that seminaries and houses of formation, in general, are more interested in pliant candidates than bold thinkers. It is much easier to churn out clergy and religious in an assembly-line format than engage candidates. Traditional parishes often have a few “Rev. Dr.” in the rectory. This was also my experience in Anglo-Catholicism. Why is this not the same at most Roman Catholic parishes?

    So don’t give me the “vocations shortage” line. Maybe there’s a shortage of pliant vacuous men and women who’d rather gulp down everything their seminary or formation professors place before them. Scores of very intelligent, inquisitive, and perhaps a bit rebellious men and women stand before you, and yet they are eagerly turned away. Throw away the candy and eat the wrapper, eh?

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      Might I also add that, I suspect, some bright young men are turned away from seminary as they might eagerly wish to learn to recite the judica me. Is it better to reject a prospective candidate who is crypto-traditionalist or even “out” (and especially worships at a traditionalist-inclined parish), even if might well be a gifted celebrant and homilist? Certainly also in my experience these priests are worthy celebrants of the ordinary form as well.

  13. I am not someone who likes to blame parents, but from my experience as a pastoral leader in a parish, the parents who practice their faith (and this probably needs to be both parents, not just one if two are at home), have children who are engaged in Church. And parents who come occasionally, sometimes with their children and sometimes not, have children who are much less engaged. Christian’s Smith’s previous works pretty much stated that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and I would have to agree. But, I also know great Catholic parents who have children involved in all sorts of sports that take them away from our parish on Sundays, at least for a season of a particular sport. They might attend Church or not while they are gone, but what do we do when the season ends… welcome them “home” or admonish them for being away. If we aren’t welcoming, why wouldn’t they continue to stay away? We can have great youth ministry and religious education programs, and we should, but if Sunday Mass is not a welcoming, joy-filled, holy, mystical, done-as-well-as-possible-each-week place, then we are not doing what a parish can do to pass on the faith. It all flows from our liturgy – both in a practical and spiritual way. Our younger generation, and most of our not-younger generations will not go to Church out of obligation or fear of damnation. They will go to be feed- by a community and pastoral leaders who are welcoming, by music and homilies that teach and touch the heart, by the presider’s capacity to pray the prayers of the Mass, not just “say” it, by the beauty of the physical space, and, of course, by the Eucharist and their own prayer. Do some or all of these poorly, and most people will only hang in there for so long before they will go somewhere else. I know because my parish if full of people fleeing other parishes and it is really sad.

  14. For every tale there is about a young person being dismissed for taking an interest in Latin there are many more of young people being dismissed for not having enough interest in it, such as the many teenagers at my nephew’s parish who had their mass canceled by the new priest who promptly replaced it with a Latin mass. My nephew, who took part in the youth mass and is now a in his 20’s has not seen the inside of a church since.

    The same can also be said for many young women who turned away from the church because they were told they were not welcome to serve at the altar — often, again, when a new priest comes into the parish and puts an end to the service they had already been offering.

    Given that our seminaries are full of seminarians who want nothing more than to wear cassocks and berttas, celebrate mass with their back to the people, lecture the laity on how we aren’t measuring up to their standards, and ignore the example being set by Pope Francis etc. I would not say that there are many “traditionalists” being “turned away” from seminaries.

    Certainly 35 years of Popes John Paul and Benedict trying to stuff the Vatican II genie back in the bottle and 35 years of finger wagging have not exactly sent the message to our youth that they are valued in the church.

    1. @Norman Borelli:
      I would agree that many teens I know back away from liturgy and youth ministry because of the odd behavior that’s held up as holy. The cover of our current archdiocesan newspaper features an article about the first-ever graduation liturgy for homeschooled children in our diocese, with an accompanying photo of a teenaged girl wearing a mantilla kneeling before the archbishop – eye level with his genitals – her hands clasped behind her back as she receives on the tongue. This and other distorted imagery of Christian discipleship repel many young adults who seek healthy expressions of faith.

  15. It’s interesting to note that the people who have the most upbeat, encouraging responses in this thread are involved in Catholic high schools. Realistically, however, we cannot pin our hopes on schools. Catholic high schools are reaching the smallest number of kids among our youth. Even when I was in high school, in the 1970s, in New York, an archdiocese with one of the largest Catholic school systems in the country, a majority of youth were not enrolled in Catholic high schools. Today, many of the Catholic high schools that were available when I was growing up have closed.

    This is a national trend. The NCEA reports that the number of students in Catholic high schools are less than 1/2 the number in Catholic elementary schools, and elementary schools only reach a small percentage of Catholic kids (1 in 10? 1 in 20?). Schools also continue to close, as this 2015 report reveals:

    “In the 10 years since the 2005 school year, 1,648 schools were reported closed or consolidated (21.1%), while 336 school openings were reported. The number of students declined by 481,016 (19.9%). The most seriously impacted have been elementary schools.” (The die-off of high schools occurred earlier, as religious orders aged and no longer had a supply of young recruits to teach for pennies.)

    The question all this raises is what is the status of parish youth ministry and catechesis for youth in the parish? I don’t know about others, but the programs I am aware of are few and far between. Big suburban parishes with lots of families may afford a youth minister. But for smaller parishes, especially rural and urban parishes, it’s not a reality. The kids “graduate” from religious instruction/catechesis with Confirmation in the eighth grade, and there is nothing else offered for them. Nothing. Young adult ministry is even more underfunded, staffed by a small band of volunteers — perceived as a frill. Bishops put a lot of effort into high school catechetical guidelines that affect maybe 1% of youth, and do nothing else. It’s pathetic.

  16. Just a couple of random thoughts: I do baptism prep in our parish, and so I encounter young couples (who are, to be sure, in various degrees of being “churched”) who, for the most part, have left college years behind, have formed a relationship with another which they hope will be permanent, and now, having brought a child into the world (or being on the verge of doing so) have just emerged on this side of the portal through which one passes into responsible adulthood from whatever the young-adult stage is that precedes it. I find these couples, almost without exception, to be reflective, spiritually serious, filled with hope, and brimming over with love for their little ones. Their faith is alive. All this, I think, is reason not to be overly pessimistic.

    Naturally, I don’t encounter in these sessions those who haven’t chosen to have their infants baptized. Therein lies the church’s opportunity and challenge: to identify those who haven’t yet made that choice, invite them, welcome them, and in many cases initiate them. It does distress me that more parishes don’t take this opportunity and challenge more seriously.

    My other thought, related to the first, is that parishes that think in terms of “youth ministry” and “young adult ministry” may not be thinking hard enough. To create a specialized ministry for them, it seems to me, is to shunt them off to the side, to treat them as less than full-fledged members of the community to whom mainstream parish ministries must be devoted and tailored. They are not the targets of a specialized ministry; they are the church. Their time is not the future; their time is now. All of our parish-driven activities, from preaching and music-making to human concerns to faith formation to parish social life, must think of them as the primary demographic whom we are serving. And that means changing a lot of habitual ministerial behavior. Generations are not all the same. Time to hit the reset button.

  17. I’ll offer my two-cents worth, mainly just based on my one-year stint teaching choir and theology at a Catholic high school in Utah. I perceived the problem to be not that they were fed up with the Catholic Church, but that they were fed up with what the falsely perceived the Catholic Church to be. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and much of it comes from other Catholics and even religion teachers. In general, the agnostics and Protestants performed better in the class than the Catholics. Some were surprised when I explained to them that the Church actually has no problem with evolution theory. Some were surprised when I told them that they are free to disagree with certain things the leadership says. Don’t accept the Nicene Creed? That’s kind of a problem. Think women should be ordained deacons? Fine – maybe it doesn’t happen now, but there’s a case to be made for it, and it’s within the realm of possibility. So the question is – do you reject because you disagree with something that’s not a core doctrine anyway, or stay with it and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide it to do the right thing, regardless of personal opinion? I jettisoned our miserable poorly written booklet that purported to be our textbook, because theology ought to be a serious academic pursuit, not a spirituality session for the already-Catholics. Instead, we used a book with beautiful images, we had serious discussions on controversial matters, we learned our stuff (myself included), and we focused on all that is wonderful and beautiful about the Church (and there is a lot). I even showed them Terence Malick’s brilliant abstract film “The Tree of Life,” because I figured that could explain the creation myths better than I could. Youth tend to focus on the short term, which includes the modern social debates. We need to show them that the Church is timeless and beautiful, and will long outlast any of these temporal challenges.

  18. Karl Rahner wrote back in 1965 that the Church of the future would be a Church in diaspora. The cultural support of Christendom has faded, and Catholics tend more and more to be Catholic because of a personal choice than from a cultural or familial expectation. In addition one of the characteristics of the millennial generation (Y) is the attitude that one obeys a law if he sees the value of it; if he does not see it for himself, he excuses his compliance. Perhaps the “conscience-based approach” is to be understood in the context of that generation Y attitude.

  19. I heard an interview on The Catholic Channel with Dr. Elizabeth Drescher about “nones” (those who indicate they have no religion on polls). She has a book coming out this year about “nones”. She noted that the 1940s and 1950s were unusually religious in the history of the US. She said that since the 1960s the country has been returning to what has been more historically normal as far as religious affiliation or lack of affiliation. She also said that, despite lack of religious affiliation, many “nones” still sought some type of religion or spirituality. I might be misunderstanding, but there might still be hope.

  20. Rita Ferrone, # 22

    Actually, all of our kids, from comment one, are from the government schools. As the pastor of a 3,000 person a Sunday parish I actually don’t like Catholic education, even though it was good when I went, I think it’s basically over now.

    Government schools are opposed enough to most of what we believe but you can still find “safe” teachers and our HS kids learn to fight for their beliefs effectively. That is better prep for the world they’ll be living in so I say, sharpen your intellectual and spiritual sword now.

  21. I am a mid-Atlantic college psychology professor. I am also active in the campus Catholic community. It has been disheartening watching attendance at the two Sunday masses decline. Where twenty years ago we had standing room (over 200) at Easter Vigil now we get perhaps 30. Attendance drops over the course of the year as fewer freshmen stick it out. There needs to be great attention to the transition from high school to college. Do college students hear homilies that speak to them? Do they meet a welcoming community? Are those ministering to college students alert to the different languages they need to be able to use to draw in students who are often not like them? One of our challenges has been that well-meaning but intense students can be off-putting to those on the fringes of the Church. Are the most zealous of our students humble enough to listen to others and make space for them? Does the community give off an aroma of desperation, or of being an oppressed body? How can the Church better discern those drawn to campus ministry, and help them grow in their roles?

    I’d also emphasize the transitions when people move after college. Times of transition are when personal habits as a whole are most subject to change. (That’s the one point in this note about which I can speak from expertise.) Busted Halo used to have a list of parishes that were friendly to young adults. Is there still something like that available? Do graduates know of it if there is? I’m one of the three geezer mascots of a young adult choir with up to a couple dozen members. We have around 175 at Sunday Mass. The community seems vibrant and has been for years. But how do people find us? Similarly when they marry off and move to the ‘burbs how do they find a critical mass of folks like them?

    It is crucial to form both head and heart in faith, but some structures make this development more likely, I suspect.

    One last point….the reasons people leave are likely different from the reasons they articulate for why…

  22. Thanks for these valuable insights, Tony. I wonder what the trends are in campus ministry generally. Are the people sought for these positions nowadays less effective than their earlier counterparts? As for the decline in Easter Vigil attendance, this may coincide with the national decline of adult baptisms since 2005. (49% drop between 2000 and 2013). Easter Vigil attendance is always higher when initiation is going strong.

    I know what you mean about the too-zealous kids not “making space for others” too. There was a row of them ahead of me recently at a University chapel, and they actually shushed adults at the door, as if they were the guardians of church manners! They projected a censorious attitude to those around them, and would not receive communion from the EM but all ran over to the priest’s line, cutting ahead of other people. If that’s the sort of “model Catholics” young people see in their age group, no wonder “normal” kids run in the opposite direction.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      Thanks, Rita. I’m sorry for the slow reply!

      Initiations at Vigil have bounced around over the years and I think we have had about as many baptisms as before. I offered Vigil, but I could have offered any Sunday. Perhaps we are at 20% of what we were?

      Re your experience at shushing….Used to be that there was always a buzz in the congregation before Mass as students talked to each other. One of the chaplains thought silence was more appropriate to the time and so it has gotten a lot more quiet. I don’t know if correlation is cause here or not.

      Re effectiveness of chaplains…Given the decline in vocations I would imagine that most priests are less effective at what they have to do now than they used to be. If there are many options you can pick and choose who you assign where. If there are few options bishops would seem more likely to have to make do. Perhaps there is a need for more lay ministers with extensive campus ministry experience?

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