New Mission Territory

by Randy Hain | September 8, 2011 12:03 am

Look around after Mass or observe the folks attending ministry meetings and parish events and ask yourself: Where are all the young adults?  According to the Fast Facts on Young Adults page listed on the USCCB website, the Church defines “young adults” as 18-40 years of age and says that 40% of Catholics today belong to this age group.  Only 24 percent of young adult Catholics attend weekly Mass, while 21 percent attend two to three times per month, according to a 2005 study conducted by sociologists William V. D’Antonio, James Davidson, Dean Hoge and Mary Gautier, authors of the book Catholics in America: Their Faith and Their Church (Sheed & Ward). According to the same study, 80 percent of young adult Catholics believe they can be a good Catholic without attending Mass weekly, a belief that clearly differentiates them from their parents’ generation. Their parents were taught by the Church that missing Mass and Holy Days of Obligation was a grave offense and a mortal sin.

Before we address the problem of their conspicuous absence, let’s look at some of the reasons why they may be straying.  I would suggest to you that many young adult Catholics go off to college where the environment is not typically supportive of living a devout Catholic life.  Assuming they are not in a strong Catholic school, they will be constantly exposed to at best; religion-neutral professors who do not embrace Church teaching or the idea that Christ should be at the center of their lives.  They will be subjected to enormous peer pressure to have a good time and taste the worldly pleasures of alcohol, drugs and sex and trained to work in a world that has largely forgotten how to value virtue and ethics.  Upon graduation, they embark on an urgent search for the best paying job to buy those things to which our culture attaches stature and prestige and live the perfect happy life.  Attending Mass and going to Reconciliation regularly are not part of this plan and far too many of our young adults drift away from the Church during this crucial period.  The drift likely started after Confirmation, but we don’t seem to register the Church’s great loss until we look around our parishes and see so few of this younger, post college generation.  It is a tragedy and we need to do something.

Have we come to rely too heavily on marriage and children to bring our young Catholics back into the fold?  To be sure, you can often observe this phenomenon as young couples bringing their children to the parish for Baptism begin to recall their own Catholic childhoods and want the same for their children.  The problem is we are not getting all of them back!  With so many babies being born out of wedlock and couples living together without marriage, we can’t rely on the Sacraments of Marriage and Baptism alone to reconcile our young adults to the Church.  Also, people in general are waiting longer to get married.  If you will agree with my premise that we are losing many from this important group, then can you agree that we must avoid losing them in the first place?

When I was in college I rebelled against everything my parents stood for, as I suspect many of us did.  I didn’t realize how smart my parents were until I had children of my own.  In my rebellion against them and God, which lasted until my conversion into the Catholic Church in 2006, I sorely needed guides and mentors to show me the way back to Christ.  I had role models, but they were largely business leaders who I admired for their work success.  Do our young people have mentors and role models to show them the Truth and Beauty of our Faith?  Isn’t it our responsibility to speak to and work with this “lost generation” and help them learn from our experiences?  Try to look at young adults Catholics as New Mission Territory. We Catholics are wonderful about feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and helping people with a host of serious problems, but how often do we focus on mentoring our young adults and nurturing their faith?

The news is not all bad.  There are flourishing LifeTeen, Theology on Tap, Young Adult Ministries and Young Married Ministries in many parishes around the country.  The successful programs have focused on some of the following important points to reach these sons and daughters of the Church and help them stay on track:

In my discussions with young adults I have encountered a number of people who were eager to share their thoughts and perspectives on their Catholic faith.  While doing research on the USCCB website I came across a quote from a young Catholic woman in New York named Michelle M. Mystkowski who had written to the Bishops.  Her thoughts capture and summarize very well the opinions of many I have encountered: 

As a young adult in today’s dynamic society, I—like so many other young adults—am hungry. I have felt a strong spiritual hunger, a hunger that stems from the need to discover who I am, who is my God, and what is my purpose in society. It is a hunger that once fed can continue to fuel my life journey in a direction that would follow the footsteps of Christ.

It is my hope that the Catholic Church will help guide me through this transitional period of my life; to keep me in touch with the “big picture” of life while I strive to pursue both my immediate and distant dreams; to help me find peace along the way. It is also my hope that the Catholic Church will provide us, as young adults, with the opportunities to truly feel an integral and necessary part of the church community; to provide us the chance to gather with other young adults so that we may share and reflect on our life journey and self-discovery together.

I believe that through a community of encouragement and support based on the life and teachings of Christ, the Catholic Church can give me the inspiration, strength, and perseverance necessary to continue my journey and to realize my hopes and dreams for life.

The challenge I have addressed in this article may seem daunting, but we have a responsibility to help.  The future of our Church will be in the hands of this generation after we are long gone.  What can we do to make a positive difference?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but it seems to me that we can make a difference in 4 meaningful ways-Prayer, Engagement, Education and Example.

A friend who knew I was writing this article asked me a great question: How do we find these young adult Catholics?  One suggestion is to simply be more aware.  Seek out people at Mass who you don’t know and introduce yourself (good practice for all of us anyway!).  This contact may lead you to getting to know them better in the following weeks.  Another suggestion is to ask your friends in the parish community if they have friends or relatives in this age group who may be struggling with their faith.  I have rarely met someone in our parish community who doesn’t know a struggling young adult Catholic.  Finally, ask our Priests and Deacons if they can point you towards young adults in the parish and offer to reach out as I outlined earlier.

This is not a brand new issue and there is much discussion and debate in the Church today on this topic with some progress being made.  I simply hope to bring more awareness to an area that had escaped my attention until recently as it may have escaped yours.  We have an opportunity and a responsibility to be “salt and light” in the world and help others.  I hope you will prayerfully consider reaching out to the group that represents the future of our Church and do what you can to help them on their faith journey.


Randy Hain is the author of The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work which will be published by Liguori Publications at the end of this year.  The Catholic Briefcase is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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