Beyond the Numbers
A White Paper about Young Adult Ministry – Developed for the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth to further the conversation on young adults in the Church today.
By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
There hardly seems to be a week without another set of numbers about religion in general and Catholics in particular. The wonderful folks at Pew Research survey people all the time, assessing trends about many things, including religion. In the Catholic universe, CARA presents regular data about Catholics, and cohorts within the general Catholic population.
There are many paradoxical things about research into the religious lives of Young Adults. On the one hand, when one uses the category “attendance at Mass regularly,” the picture seems to be quite gloomy. A safe estimate is that only two out of ten Young Adults are involved in regular practice of a faith-whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or whatever. At the same time, in spite of this relative non-practice of faith, Catholics hold on to an identity which seems to endure even through relative absence at Mass on Sunday.
For us Catholics, for whom weekly attendance at Mass seems to be both the gold standard and the basic bottom line, this news is drastic. As a result, commentators can draw a rather dire picture of Catholicism among Young Adults . . . and project a dire picture into the future. The rise of the so-called “nones,” (those who answer “none” when asked about religious preference) gives us one more statistical vocabulary item to objectify and worry about. Even so, these dire pictures may be quite distortionary when it comes to describing where Young Adult Catholics are, and even more distortionary when it comes to thinking about what it means to minister to Young Adults.
The reason is simple. If “going to Mass regularly” forms the bucket into which one wants to pour Young Adult Catholics, one will miss a lot of faith activity that happens even apart from Mass. Of course one wants people to attend Mass on a regular—indeed, weekly—basis. But perhaps non-attendance at Mass is not a statement about faith so much as it is about a cultural situation in which Young Adults find themselves in the modern world. In this case, the danger is that we write off, in our minds but, even worse, in our pastoral practice, almost eighty percent of Young Adults. In our attitude toward them—they are “nones” and do not believe—we end up categorizing them outside the Church; and such attitudes run the risk of becoming self-fulfilling.
Most Young Adult Catholics believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary, the sacraments, the Mass, the Real Presence, commitment to treat others justly, and to serve those in need. So what’s with the non-attendance at Mass? Scholars like Robert Wuthnow correlate attendance at church with the whole phenomenon of “settling down”—and people settle down at least ten years later than they used to. Furthermore, adolescents and Young Adults experience puberty and the process of mating for over fifteen years of their lives. A lot of what we are seeing in terms of behavior represents the dislocation that growing up in modern society exacts on people. Of course, what better place to preserve one’s integrity and find a mate than in church? But, from a Young Adult point of view, church is where “those old people” go. Or “those married people” go.
Might a fuller approach to Young Adults gain something from the “gradualism” that Pope Francis frequently talks about? But this gradualism—whereby people come to absorb values more deeply into their lives through step-by-step experience—only works when people see themselves still connected to the community of the Church. So a pastoral direction would be this: from the side of our ministry, to continue making contact, offering connections, and building bridges with Young Adults so that they see their connection with the Church more consistently. Rather than insisting on a solid circle that stands in the middle—“And you better be in that circle!”—we can think of rings of concentric circles, with more active Young Adults in the center, but with waves of other circles surrounding this center. This means approaching people with the assumption that they belong to the Church—and can belong even more—rather than with the assumption that they no longer belong, or belong in only a dubious way.
The pastoral working-out of this strategy would involve creating a variety of events and contact points for Young Adults, and employing communication—face to face, of course; but also multiple kinds of social and Internet contact—to generate contact and interchange between more active Young Adults and their brother-and-sister Catholics (and others!) who are less active. How interesting that certain parishes and cathedrals seem to be magnets for Young Adults . . . showing how selective Young Adults will be when they choose, and also how important peer contact is for connecting Young Adults to a faith community. And surely, if there are hundreds of Young Adults at a Mass, they will be in very different relationships with Christ and with the Church; whatever the state of the relationship, ministry can build up it to increase commitment and discipleship.
While it is tempting to define Church as the solid core of the totally committed, in reality, Catholicism has functioned more as the solid core that touches a much bigger population of less-than-solid members and brings them along as that is possible. We can use categories of “discipleship” to build walls, or we can use those categories to build the bridges that are possible in a person’s life. Nicholas Lombardo, O.P., has recently written about ministry to those in their 20s/30s, a distillation of years of interaction with Young Adults (20s/30s Ministry: A Guide for Parishes, Paulist Press). His book images a core circle, but it also shows how much energy can emerge from that core.
That we have necessary categories for statisticians and sociologists to do their work in one thing. That people defy categories, and leap from one to another, especially in their young years, is quite another thing. If a variety of factors have shaped the religious activity of Young Adults today, those same factors show a fluidity in life that can work as much in favor of stronger faith as it can work against it.