As young adults disaffiliate from the Catholic Church—and institutional religion in general—at an accelerating rate, they often seek out other places they see as providing the relationships, activities, and values they prize. This quest may bring them to CrossFit, SoulCycle, yoga, or some other similar activity.
How should the church answer this trend?
For starters, it might begin by examining its own identity and offerings, according to Boston College professor Theresa O’Keefe, a scholar expert in youth and young adult faith formation. Adolescence and young adulthood are characterized by needs for affirmation, relationship, community, and participation in clearly meaningful activity. In the church, all those may best be provided at a grassroots, typically parish level, she said.
Too often, O’Keefe said, the Catholic Church has gauged its success with young people in terms of numbers. Youth programming sometimes reflects that emphasis, whereas what is critical is to design opportunities to build relationships. Parishes provide an ideal setting for this, said O’Keefe, who also worked for 10 years in religious education for the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. “So the question is how do we invite real people who we really know into mature faith in the parish?” she said.
“Worrying about [the number of] bodies in the building and paying bills doesn’t seem to have been Jesus’ primary concern, nor Pope Francis’s,” she said. Rather, the questions ought to be, “How do I live a meaningful life and how do Christ and the community inform that? If we don’t live the gospel in explicit and obvious ways, then what are we doing?”
Currently too much parish youth programming is siloed by age, separating young people from the larger faith community and thereby losing the intergenerational virtues of parish life, she said. Also, whereas young people are best able to discover themselves through relationships with trusted adults, as well as meaningful activity that reflects community values and beliefs, many parishes “are minimalists,” O’Keefe said, offering the sacraments but little else. Successful parishes, on the other hand, are diverse communities that celebrate the Eucharist well and provide meaningful activities in subgroups.
Parishes should ask themselves: “What opportunities do we create for people to get to know one another in a meaningful way?” O’Keefe said. “For example, a parish might do a Habitat for Humanity build,” organizing the effort intentionally as “a cooperative venture that is intergenerational and designed to have people get to know each other.”
Nor should such activities just be parents working alongside their own children, she said, but rather adults having “time with someone else’s kids. For a young person to just speak their mind, they often need someone who is just going to listen.” Family relationships are freighted with history, and “parents cannot NOT be parents to their own children,” she said. The maturing adolescent needs some other listening adult with whom they can “try out an idea and see how it sounds in the world.”
Parish life in general should be structured so as to “let kids hang out with other adults,” O’Keefe said, “so people mingle in activities that mean something to them, whether it’s Bible study, social outreach, or liturgical planning and execution. Look at what the parish is already doing and ask: ‘How can we make these activities intergenerational and relational?’”
O’Keefe noted: “The church is calling for people to recognize a relationship with Christ and to live into it. We can’t get people to do that unless there are real relationships within congregations for young people to be drawn into relationship with Jesus Christ and the church.”
Also important to adolescents and young adults is the recognition that religious belief systems aren’t simply intellectual or theoretical constructs, but clearly “mean something” in how people live day to day in the world. Understanding the “connection of the church’s belief system with the way life gets lived” is critical, said O’Keefe. “The church’s story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is not just some odd code of social organization but a view of what life is about and has an impact on how we live our lives.” Too often, however, that meaning is “never articulated, so it’s misunderstood,” she said.
None of the above is to minimize the singular importance of the Eucharistic celebration in parishes, O’Keefe said, calling the Eucharist “the source and summit” of parish life. Eucharist is the moment when the wider, diverse community comes together declaring “this is all of us.” A young person stepping into a church on Sunday may be wondering, “Is anyone doing anything meaningful” here, O’Keefe said. ”If it feels like nothing is going on in that community that person will leave.”
O’Keefe added that the role of the presider is also important, and “meaningful preaching is critical, but in good worship, the presider is just one person among others who really make the life of the church go. In a good worshipping community, the presider knows [this] and people know it.”
O’Keefe praised Saint Mary’s Press for its research on the disaffiliation of young Catholics, especially its attention first and foremost to the voices of young people. “I’m a big fan of qualitative research, which asks, ‘What is going on here, what are young people speaking about and what is important to them?’” O’Keefe said. “This research gives you something very important to interpret. It’s valuable to get the words and stories of individuals. It takes a lot of work to get someone to tell you the truth, especially if they’ve felt ignored to date.”
Agree, disagree, or have something to add to this conversation? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below!
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research