I find it endlessly fascinating to teach theology to undergraduates at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. I observe two tendencies in recent years, and they’re going in opposite directions. First, there is great skepticism toward organized religion and religious authorities. Second, there is growing interest in and openness to questions of faith, spirituality, prayer, and meaning.
A recent survey of young Catholics in England suggests that there are interesting developments going in various direction there too. Greater Mass attendance (yes, you read that right), but less than orthodox views about God and widespread ignoring of the church’s moral teachings. Some of this overlaps with my observations on young people in the U.S.
I teach undergrad liturgy courses, and of course we talk about symbols – that they are polyvalent, that they both express and form, that they can hold common meanings uniting a community, and the like. As an exercise to help students think about the varied ways in which they read symbols, this past year I put up two images: an Eastern Orthodox clergyman and a megachurch preacher in jeans, on stage next to a lit-up cross .
I selected a vested Orthodox clergyman in the hope that it would be both somewhat familiar to most of them but also outside of their direct experience, since most students by far are Catholic, or Lutherans who have seen a pastor in an alb. What symbols do you see in the image of the Orthodox priest, I ask the class, and what do these symbols say to you?
Here’s what I get: His outfit says he’s a know-it-all… he looks like he would talk down to us… he seems really judgmental… I bet he’s very by-the-book and a stickler for rules. And so forth. This sort of thing is the default reaction of young people to religious authorities nowadays – it’s in the water supply.
And there I am, standing in front of the class in my habit! I guess I’m happy that they feel comfortable being so honest in my presence. I’m pretty sure that they would say, “Oh, we don’t mean you, Fr. Anthony, we like the Benedictine values and the monasteries on our campuses” – but I didn’t think it helpful to derail the discussion by asking them.
FWIW, most of them are not particularly drawn to the megachurch preacher either – they think he looks like a salesman or politician trying to sell them something that isn’t very deep.
To be sure, it could be that the students don’t like what they don’t know. Maybe an image of a vested priest or Lutheran minister would elicit from them reactions of respect for a dedicated person with a holy ministry of leading worship and preaching. This fall I might add these images to the exercise.
But alongside this skepticism toward organized religion, I detect a marked increase of interest in questions of faith and meaning, compared to five years ago. I hear more students saying things like this: I guess my parents were Catholic but we never went to church, and this course was very interesting for me to see what I missed out on… I wonder why so many people are religious and go to church… I’ve never heard of worship making one’s life more meaningful and I want to think more about this… I do wonder where to find meaning in today’s crazy world…
This past year, campus ministry at St. John’s reported that attendance at the student Mass at the beginning of fall semester was markedly higher than past years, though the proportion of Catholic students is declining and is now barely over 50%. And attendance did not decline as much over fall semester as in previous years. Student attendance at daily Mass also increased noticeably this past year.
Something’s going on. Is this the Francis effect? I’m not sure how many young people are tracking what the pope is doing. But many of their parents are – are they hearing more positive things now? And they’re probably seeing at least some headlines at Facebook or on other apps about the pope saying things like “Who am I to judge?”
On to England. Here’s what Catholic Herald reports on the recent youth survey:
With the youth synod only a few months away, a major new survey of young Catholics in Britain has some startling findings. On the plus side, Complex Catholicism: The Lives and Faith of Young Catholics in England and Wales Today shows a strong increase in regular Mass attendance (at least monthly) from 25 per cent of all respondents in 2009 to 36 per cent in 2017. Irregular Mass attendance (less than monthly) has increased from 59 per cent in 2009 to 75 per cent today.
But the survey also includes some unsettling findings about what young Catholics actually believe: well over half do not hold traditional Catholic beliefs on God, many believe that Jesus was only human and not the Son of God, and a large number are willing to ignore the Church’s moral teachings.
Is this poll an outlier? Could be. I suspect it’s an indication of something afoot with young people today.
What are your impressions of young people’s views on religion and faith and meaning? And if you’re a young person, what do you think is going on with yourself and your peers?