39 How can Catholic theology help young people?

As a college freshman, my initial attendance at church was motivated by a sense of obligation rather than a feeling of belonging. However, something extraordinary happened when I walked into that church. The pastor called me by name, and my fellow junior students not only knew my name but also embraced me warmly for simply showing up. The radiant warmth and acceptance I experienced from them guided me, within just a month of attending that church, to sign up for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in order to confirm my belief in Catholic Christianity.

Many young Catholics today are hesitant to participate in church activities. No matter how big or small the initiatives may be, they often fail to attract them. However, personal invitations and companionship can make a difference. The National Eucharistic Revival and the international Synod on Synodality also provide opportunities to engage young Catholics. However, these movements alone are not enough to sway the disinterested and disaffiliated. What young people truly need is the efforts of individual believers who genuinely care.

As a young adult and practicing Catholic, I represent only half of my generation who are committed to church practices. A recent report from the Springtide Research Institute on young Catholics revealed that 50 percent of them do not know how to connect with a faith community, even if they wish to. I was fortunate to know how to find a faith community because my parents took me to church every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life. When I entered adulthood and left home for college, my pastor provided me with the name of a church I could attend, and I followed through because I wanted to connect.

However, many young people simply do not have the desire to connect with religion. According to the Springtide report, nearly four in 10 young people (39 percent) claim to have been harmed by religion in the past, and 45 percent do not feel safe when it comes to religion. I can think of several friends who, upon learning that I am Catholic, shared stories of how someone from their church had told them or their family that they were going to hell, among other hurtful things. Many young people of my generation prefer to distance themselves from such distressing situations. Consequently, my friends left the church.

The ex-Catholic peers I have spoken to have expressed that they feel better after leaving. They often fail to comprehend why I would remain with an institution they perceive as being filled with toxic individuals. Instances of abuse fall into this category. However, my friends do acknowledge that the church seems to help some people, including myself. They simply do not perceive themselves as being among those who benefit.

I challenge church leaders to do better. They should follow Christ’s command to “go out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). I urge leaders to personally get to know disaffiliated young people. The eucharistic revival alone will not magically cause them to rejoin the church. Nonetheless, there are actions that churches can take to appeal more to today’s young people.

Respecting what matters to young people

One of the most troubling statistics from the Springtide report was that only 6 percent of young Catholics claimed to have been personally reached out to by a faith leader during the first two years of the pandemic. In other words, nearly 19 out of every 20 young people who identified as Catholic did not hear from a leader within their faith community. If I were ignored by someone I barely considered a friend for two years, I would certainly feel skeptical about investing in that relationship.

In contrast, my college pastor, Father Nathan Mamo, wrote letters to our community throughout the pandemic. I never lost touch with my parish. Many members of our community wanted to get involved and actively contribute while we searched for safe ways to worship remotely. Father Nathan invited members to read and sing for the weekly online liturgies. I participated and assumed that other parishes were acting similarly. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Father Nathan took the concerns of young people seriously. Nearly half of young Catholics (44 percent) believe that religious institutions do not care about the issues that matter most to their generation. Young people today are actively involved in advocating for LGBTQ rights, gender equity, immigration, disability rights, environmental causes, racial justice, and more. When I bring up these topics with older individuals, they often express surprise that religious groups champion these causes. This is unfortunate, considering the significant efforts made by Pope Francis on many of these fronts.

Overall, young people feel that faith communities do not prioritize the causes that matter to their generation. However, Father Nathan bridged this values gap by addressing these issues within our community. He championed social justice and championed us. Our parish, as well as our Knights of Columbus council (which is mostly comprised of young adults), thrived based on the foundation of God’s challenging gospel of love, coupled with our pastor’s open-minded and personal approach.

It is important to note that this does not discount the efforts of many parish staff members who worked diligently throughout the pandemic to keep parishioners close and in their thoughts. Rather, it highlights the need to empower communities to make individual efforts to embrace young people. Many young people seek communities that faith leaders, whether lay, religious, paid, or volunteer, have the power to nurture. Strong and well-lived formation can be immensely helpful.

The Eucharist as an answer, but not the only one

When I first learned about the U.S. church’s eucharistic revival in the spring of 2022, I felt relieved to know that our nation’s Catholic leaders were addressing a significant disconnect among many Catholics. The Eucharist is undeniably a profound expression of God’s presence, a special grace bestowed upon us by Jesus. However, many believers no longer perceive it as such.

Since the eucharistic revival began in the summer, I have sensed that a significant motivation behind it is to physically bring people back to churches. As the official website made clear, “More than 30 percent of Catholics have not returned to the pews post-pandemic.” Additionally, it stated that “More than 40 percent [of Millennials] now self-identify as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.” In stark terms, the site concluded, “Many young Catholics find the faith to be irrelevant to the meaning of their lives and challenges.”

Teaching a lesson about the Eucharist is not going to entice Catholics, particularly young Catholics, to return to their parishes. On the contrary, many are likely to resent the church even more. They are already content without the Eucharist in their lives. Because they find meaning in other aspects of their lives, they do not feel the need for a faith community.

For me, it took years before I found solace in adoration and experienced God’s love through receiving communion. I now cherish these experiences and appreciate them when they are accessible. However, in many communities, these practices are not accessible, and even if they were, many young Catholics would not seek them out. Why would they? If they feel fulfilled and satisfied with their current pursuits, they do not see the need to explore a church that does not feel like home to them.

The Time Is Now

However, there are still many young people who are desperately seeking a community. The Springtide study found that only 7 percent of young people strongly believe that their spirituality is private, while 80 percent believe in the importance of relating to others. Yet, often, young people bypass faith communities in search of a sense of belonging. They find connection in spaces such as nature retreats, yoga studios, and even protests. Are parishes engaging in genuine dialogue with these young people and fostering the sense of belonging they are seeking?

Amidst the eucharistic revival and the synod, the church must do more than simply call young people to physically return. The church must meet young people where they are and as they are. Young people crave connection and belonging, but this cannot be achieved without patient trust, love, and a willingness to call each individual by name. Consistent presence in our lives, engagement with our interests, and prayers for understanding are necessary if the church is to truly become a place of genuine belonging.

Image: Pexels/Roussety Gregory