Bob Dylan was singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And, circa 1968, in the Long Island, New York, parish of St. Anne’s in Garden City, they were.
Sunday Mass at 11:30 a.m. comprised two gatherings, necessary because both assemblies overflowed. It was the era of the suburban boom. Nearly everyone in the neighborhood was Catholic. Upstairs was the more traditional Mass in the main sanctuary; downstairs, in the auditorium, which doubled as a makeshift gym for the school, my mother and her friends preferred what they referred to jokingly as “Mass of the catacombs.”
The elderly pastor tolerated the downstairs Mass, with its tambourines and guitars, just a few years removed from the switch from Latin to English. Change was in the air, and so was liturgical innovation. In place of the pastor, we tended to get the associate, a fresh-faced young man with a heavy Irish accent, and the occasional Jesuit who wandered across the Throgs Neck Bridge from Fordham for weekend backup.
That was post-Vatican II suburban postwar Catholicism, a Baby Boomer world. Sociologists place Baby Boomers among those Americans born between 1945 and 1964, an era when millions of men, including my father, returned from World War II service and began, with their wives, forming families. We are routinely noted for our massive numbers through the years.
According to a 2015 Pew Foundation survey, I am part of the 38 percent of Catholic Baby Boomers who still attend weekly Mass. Some Catholics see that number as a positive, as the younger generations are even lower in their affiliations, with subsequent generations at 30 percent and below. Millennials and Gen Zers now get the attention as church leaders scramble to capture younger generations.
But what happened to the Baby Boomers who left? And, perhaps more interestingly, why do the 38 percent hang in there? I find myself curious about those who remained steady through the decades, and whether our experience of post-Vatican II Catholicism lived up to its promise.
In St. Anne’s in the 1960s, Dylan’s song was a communion reflection, delivered by a man of college age who sported a stubbly beard and played the guitar. I was 11 years old, someone who longed to be avant-garde, listening to Dylan on scratchy FM signals from the city instead of Top 40 Beatles and Four Seasons on AM stations. I listened in quiet amazement, piecing together the scriptural references in the Dylan lyrics.
Here was consciousness of a wider world, an awareness that spirituality wasn’t simply an exercise in placating a wrathful and legalistic God, where the insights of a Jew from Duluth were welcome and various renewal movements, from Cursillo to Marriage Encounter, proclaimed that one could find God in an emotive as well as a quiet, ascetic way.
Fast forward nearly half a century, and my Mass experience is far different. Every Sunday I stride the boardwalk near my apartment in Queens, New York, feeling the breeze off the ocean, looking for the occasional whale or dolphin passing by, and reflecting on the day’s scripture readings before heading to church. It is a routine that began when my mother would shuffle me and my five siblings out the door each Sunday in the late 1960s. Now the churches are no longer crowded. My wife, my two 40-something children, nearly all my friends, and my surviving siblings rarely make the trek to church anymore. I walk to Mass alone.
The ones who stick around
For answers, I expand my circle, checking in with a group that I figured would have hung in all these years: my fellow campus ministry alumni from St. John’s University. At the time I attended in the mid- to late-1970s, St. John’s was a commuter school (it has since added dorms) and largely served a Catholic student body from Long Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. In campus ministry, we went on retreats, where we wrote our sins on paper scraps and symbolically burned them before confession. We were part of a faith community led by Vincentian priests and a Daughter of Charity sister whose influence permeated our lives, helping us navigate through the college years and beyond.
John Byrne, now 66, built a career in health care administration that took him all over the world. He’s married, the father of two, and lives in Queens. I remember his witty take on some of our American history professors. Byrne was intellectual and inquisitive, and still is.
Today he is a lector at his parish church. He’s found the activity a gateway to spiritual renewal.
“I try not to read scripture like the shopping list I bring to the supermarket,” he says. He studies the readings and garners their meaning, looking up obscure references in the Hebrew scriptures. We agree that too many preachers skip over the Old Testament readings, perhaps because they are too obscure, unsettling, or racy.
“I am on board with Catholic teaching,” says Byrne. He supports the wide spectrum of church life issues and is a member of Democrats for Life, a group that tries to reconcile Catholic social teaching with modern politics.
If God is working, God is likely to do so through the currents of history.
Another devoted Catholic Baby Boomer, Frank Coughlin, is 64, living in New Jersey and retired from a career as a teacher in Catholic schools in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. He believes that Catholicism melds the best of faith and scientific reasoning, crediting a seminar he took at the University of Notre Dame with solidifying both his intellectual instincts and Catholic faith.
Tom Capasso of Long Island is 68, studied theology in college, but found the best way to make a living was in IT. He imbibed much of what was around in Catholic circles on Long Island during his formative years, renewal movements that galvanized groups of young people. He would bring his bass guitar to play along with parish groups.
“I feel like I am part of the church, but now it’s a little harder to belong,” he says. A long-time marriage ended in divorce; he is now in a relationship, and at this stage he doesn’t want to pursue an annulment. He still regularly goes to Mass and walks his dog to a shrine at his neighborhood church, where a statue depicts a welcoming Jesus reaching outward with one hand.
Michael An, 64, lives his faith through a swirl of commitments to renewal groups, including regular visits to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina and leading youth renewal ministry at his parish in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by parents who came from China during the Cold War. Originally from Shanghai, they were introduced to Christianity via a Lutheran congregation when they lived in Hong Kong. His mother, 102 years old, still lives in New York, and he visits her regularly.
An attended Catholic school in New York and became immersed in various renewal movements. He’s passed on his faith to his daughter, who is active in her parish in Raleigh, North Carolina. But that remains a rarity among many devout Catholic Baby Boomers. Few I talked to have been able to keep their children involved.
These Catholics include Nancy Schleyer, 65, who lives out her Catholic faith through her work in social ministry at St. Kilian’s Church in Farmingdale, New York. There, she uses the Spanish she learned in college and on visits to Central America to interact with immigrants seeking help. She finds it a concrete way of being part of the church in action. “I am so proud to be Catholic when I see what our religion does for the local community,” she says. She goes to Mass at a parish near where she lives and finds a lively social life among friends at the church. Among other activities, they have been involved in leading pre-Cana programs.
But three of her four children, who range in ages from their mid-30s to their 20s, do not actively practice their faith. One daughter still attends Mass and earlier this year gave birth to Schleyer’s first grandchild. The child’s mother wants the baby baptized, but finding godparents who are active Catholics remains an obstacle, an indication that many of her generation who were brought up Catholic have left the church.
One might be tempted to view religious faith as simply a personal choice, but if God is working, God is likely to do so through the currents of history.
Holy Cross Father Stephen Koeth, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, reminds me that my own faith life grew out of a particular milieu: suburban postwar Catholic life, a place of tidy homes, tree-shaded blocks, moms who worked at home, and dads who took the commuter train to mysterious offices in the city and returned home in a rush to get to Little League games.
Koeth, the author of the forthcoming Crabgrass Catholicism: How Suburbanization Transformed Faith and Politics in Postwar Long Island (University of Chicago Press), notes that Baby Boomers who grew up on Long Island lived in a particular time and place, different from those who came before or after. He has analyzed the postwar history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the Long Island diocese founded the year I was born in 1957, and studied how those who moved to the suburbs created both a new social order and a new kind of church spurred by Vatican II changes. New parishes become overtly American, shedding ethnic labels that held in the city in favor of generic Catholic names like Our Lady of Grace. Parishes were no longer built around ethnic identity. Life was youth-oriented; there were 23,000 infant baptisms—I was one of them—across 50 parishes in the new diocese in the year of its founding.
The new diocese had fewer priests per churchgoer than anywhere in the country, creating more dependence on lay involvement. In place of more gender-specific devotions, such as the Holy Name Society and the Rosary Society, the model shifted to Marriage Encounter and the Christian Family Movement. The pastor was no longer the most educated person in the parish.
In this era of cultural shift, some things remained stagnant. While Long Island grew thanks to new highways and the GI Bill, it was largely an experience closed out to Black people, frozen out by racial covenants and lack of access to the subsidies that built the suburbs. Koeth notes that the Long Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper, chronicled how white Catholics often refused to pray with Black Catholics, who lived in isolated enclaves. There was a world of tumult out there, but it only occasionally pierced the lives of white Catholics.
The nuns knew. Teaching sisters began spending their summers in urban areas in programs to help the poor via the Great Society initiatives of President Lyndon Johnson.
“They came out of that experience transformed,” says Koeth, noting that sisters became immersed in the problems of what was then called the ghetto. I can still recall a young sister describing for an eighth-grade religion class how money was systematically taken out of Black neighborhoods.
Spiritual writer and speaker Leslye Colvin, 64, experienced a different kind of Baby Boomer Catholicism. She now lives in Maryland and grew up a minority within a minority as a Black Catholic in Dothan, Alabama, a place far removed from the massive Catholic culture of the Northeast.
She shares much with other Baby Boomer Catholics: She experienced a life-changing Search retreat for high schoolers in Montgomery. It was 1974, just a few decades after the historic bus boycott, and Colvin immersed herself in heartfelt discussions and prayer in a racially integrated Catholic setting beyond her parish.
“It was the first time I got to meet so many African American Catholic teens,” she says. “That showed a truth of my faith, people being able to come together. This was different than going to Mass.”
She’s found that early excitement difficult to duplicate in parish life. She finds herself unable to come back to a church that she sees as slow to respond to racial justice issues. After hearing a sermon on racism at her home parish, she came away concerned that the focus was on racism as an individual concern, not the wide-ranging societal crisis it has always been in American history.
“Sadly I saw that the church had not grown in its understanding of the gospel as it relates to the concept of race.” Leslye Colvin
“Sadly I saw that the church had not grown in its understanding of the gospel as it relates to the concept of race,” she says. “As a Baby Boomer, I had grown up in a time when people had put their lives on the line.” She now reads the scriptures and practices contemplation, but, since moving to Maryland, has not been able to locate a Catholic parish community where she can feel at home.
Colvin is not the only Baby Boomer to feel estranged from the Catholic Church. Out of my old campus ministry chums, 67-year-old Ben (not his real name), is willing to testify that he’s lost faith and is an atheist. His plea for anonymity fits into another Baby Boomer profile: only 1 percent, including those who no longer associate with organized religion, identify as atheist. Ben feels that there is still a stigma attached.
At a young age, Ben was enthusiastic about Catholicism. By the time he was in high school, he was in seminary. “I was intrigued by the majesty and mystery of it all,” he says. But it all changed during what he describes as a mid-life crisis. He cites a time in his 40s when four friends died within months of one another, two in an accident and two from natural causes. At one of the wakes, a Catholic told him that his friend was in a better place now. “I didn’t think so,” Ben says. The old bromides of faith could not carry him through grief and questioning. But he says his Catholic background forms much of his moral compass and that two of his adult children are spiritual seekers of both Buddhism and Christianity.
Those in my informal survey who managed to keep the faith are not always happy with the church. The sex abuse scandals come up, and most express anger for the lack of action among church leaders. Frank Coughlin also expressed concern for the good priests he knows who have been stigmatized. This is not a group attracted to smells, bells, and Latin liturgy: They expressed unease with the growing conservatism of church leaders, particularly younger priests who wear cassocks, assert authority, and invoke the catechism in fundamentalist ways.
Baby Boomers may be more likely than their children to identify with the institutional church, but they still feel the impact of a culture increasingly drifting to a “spiritual, not religious” mentality, indifferent to church practice while still pursuing a higher spiritual reality, says Laura Upenieks, a sociologist at Baylor University.
They may hang on to a belief in God, but it often takes a more individual flavor, untethered to institutional constraints. Upenieks notes that aging Baby Boomers who disaffiliate may be depriving themselves of benefits and that those who are part of religious congregations tend to have better health and social outcomes than those who don’t.
But those are more secular concerns, with church affiliation perhaps acting much like any kind of social connection.
My late brother Joe, born in 1962, used to say he was “religious, not spiritual.” It was a switch on the axiom, a telling indication that faith needs community and tends to wither without social support.
Baby Boomers can drop in and out of church observance, as do, according to Pew, about a fifth of adult practicing Catholics. My wife, technically not a Baby Boomer in the U.S. sense, as she was born and raised in Latin America, has, since I started this piece, come back to church after a hiatus she describes as prodded by uninspiring homilies and church leaders displaying overt partisanship favoring anti-immigrant politicians. There are no easy answers to why some leave and some stay. “The Spirit invites us to go deeper,” says Colvin. “To go deeper we need a healthy community. We need to wonder.”
I go back to Dylan and that communion reflection so long ago. Written in 1964, it describes an apocalyptic vision of political leaders experiencing a raging battle, a cleansing biblical-type flood and, invoking a gospel theme, a recognition that the first will be last. Perhaps the inclusion of the song at Mass was simply another of those liturgical excesses so looked down upon in more traditional circles. Or perhaps its prophetic call needed to be heard both then and now.
Dylan himself, now 81, spoke to Baby Boomers but personally falls into an earlier generational group. He has followed a spiritual path that has led around his Jewish roots to Christian evangelicalism and beyond. “I’m a religious person,” he told the Wall Street Journal in a late 2022 interview. “I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it,” he says.
It’s unlikely that the most famous Jew from Duluth attends Sunday Mass, but maybe he stops by occasionally to light a candle. Like many Baby Boomers, he’s still asking the questions and seeking answers, much like I do, in the now largely empty pews at a church off the boardwalk in Queens.
This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, pages 30-35). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.