As a college freshman, I first came to church because I felt I should, not because I felt I belonged. Yet, something special happened when I came to that church. The pastor called me by name. Junior students also said my name and hugged me just for coming. The light that beamed from them at me began to lead me, within a month of attending that church, to signing up for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to confirm my belief in Catholic Christianity.
Many young Catholics today prefer not to show up to church. Initiatives, no matter the size, often will not work to attract them. Yet, personal invitations and accompaniment can change this. The National Eucharistic Revival and the international Synod on Synodality offer opportunities to engage young Catholics, too. Yet these movements alone won’t sway the disinterested and disaffiliated. What young people need is the efforts of individual believers who embody genuine care.
I am a young adult and a practicing Catholic. My commitment to church practices accounts for only half of my generation, though. A new report from Springtide Research Institute on young Catholics found that 50 percent don’t know how to get connected to a faith community even if they’d like to. I knew how to find a faith community because my parents took me to one every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life. When I entered adulthood and left home for college, my pastor told me the name of one I could attend there, and I followed through because I wanted to get connected.
But many young people don’t even want to get connected to religion. According to the Springtide report, nearly four in 10 young people (39 percent) say they’ve been harmed by religion in the past, and 45 percent say they don’t feel safe when it comes to religion. I can think of more than a few friends who, when I brought up that I was Catholic, would describe how in the past someone from church told them or their family that they were going to hell, along with other hurtful things. Many of my generation would prefer to remove themselves from disquieting situations like these. So, my friends left the church.
The ex-Catholic peers with whom I’ve spoken say they feel better for having left. They don’t always understand why I would stick around with an institution they see as full of toxic people. Abuse falls under this category. Yet, those friends respect that the church seems to help some, including me. They just don’t see themselves as being among those beneficiaries.
I challenge leaders to do better. Do as Christ commanded, go “out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). I urge leaders to get to know, personally, disaffiliated young people. The eucharistic revival alone will not magically cause them to reaffiliate with the church. Still, there are things churches can do to appeal more to today’s young people.
Respecting what matters to young people
Perhaps the most troubling statistic I saw in Springtide’s report was that only 6 percent of young Catholics say a faith leader reached out to them personally during the first two years of the pandemic. In other words, nearly 19 of every 20 young people identifying as Catholic did not hear from a leader in their faith community. If I were ghosted for two years by someone I may have barely called a friend anyway, I would certainly feel skeptical about putting effort into that relationship.
By contrast, my college pastor, Father Nathan Mamo, wrote letters to our community throughout the pandemic. I never lost touch with my parish. Many in our community wanted to get involved and not sit idly by as we considered safe ways to worship remotely. So Father Nathan invited those in our community to read and sing for liturgies shared weekly online. I partook and assumed other parishes acted similarly. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Fr. Nathan took the concerns of young people seriously, too. Nearly half of young Catholics (44 percent) don’t think religious institutions care about the things that matter most to their generation. Young people today are active in concern for LGBTQ rights, gender equity, immigration, disability rights, environmental causes, racial justice, and more. When I mention these topics to people older than me, they seem surprised to hear that religious groups champion these causes. This is a shame, considering the substantial efforts by Pope Francis on so many of these fronts.
Across the board, young people don’t feel like faith communities care about the above causes as much as their generation does. Nonetheless, Father Nathan overcame the values gap by broaching these issues with our community. He championed social justice. He championed us. Our parish, as well as our Knights of Columbus council (comprised almost entirely of young adults), flourished on the foundation of God’s challenging gospel of love, in tandem with our pastor’s open-minded and personal approach.
This is not to discount the efforts of many in parish staff who worked hard throughout the pandemic to keep parishioners close and in mind. This is rather to shed light on the need to empower communities to similarly make individual efforts to hold young people close. Many young people seek communities that faith leaders, lay, religious, paid or volunteer, have the power to nurture. Strong formation, lived well, can help.
The Eucharist must be an answer, but not the only one
When I first heard, in spring 2022, about the U.S. church’s eucharistic revival, I felt relieved to know our nation’s Catholic leaders are addressing a key disconnect among many Catholics. God is truly present in the Eucharist, this special grace Jesus gave us—though many believers don’t believe this.
Since the eucharistic revival began that summer, however, I have had a sense that a large motive behind the revival was simply to get people physically back into churches. As the official website made clear, “More than 30 percent of Catholics have not returned to the pews post-pandemic.” Additionally, it added, “More than 40 percent [of Millennials are] now self-identifying as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.” Put starkly, the site concluded, “Many young Catholics find the faith to be irrelevant to the meaning of their lives and challenges.”
If a key motivator of the revival is to draw Catholics—particularly young Catholics—back to parishes, teaching them a lesson about the Eucharist is not going to do it. On the contrary, many are likely to resent the church even more. Many already feel satisfied without the Eucharist in their lives. Because other things help them find meaning in their lives, they no longer feel the need for a faith community.
For me, it took years before I found solace in adoration and felt God’s love in reception of communion. Now, I love these and appreciate them when they’re accessible. In many communities, though, these aren’t accessible, and even if they were, many young Catholics wouldn’t seek them. Why would they? If they feel fine doing what they’re doing, they don’t see a need to come poking around a church they don’t see as home.
The Time Is Now
Many other young people are still desperate for a community, however. Springtide found that only 7 percent of young people strongly agree that their spirituality is private, while 80 percent believe in trying to relate to others. Yet, often, young people circumvent faith communities to find belonging. Spaces like nature retreats, yoga studios, and even protests meet their need for connection. Are parishes entering genuine dialogue with these young people and fostering that belonging they seek?
Amid the eucharistic revival and synod, our church must do more than call young people to come back physically. The church must meet young people as they are, and where they are. Young people seek connection and belonging, but this is impossible without patient trust and patient love, and a willingness to call to each individual person by name. Consistent presence in our lives, consistent engagement with our interests, and consistent prayers for understanding are necessary if the church is going to be a place of true belonging.
Image: Pexels/Roussety Gregory