Among the many issues that critics of Pope Francis took with Christus vivit, the apostolic exhortation that emerged from last year’s Youth Synod, a number focused on how the exhortation treated the fact that many teenagers and young adults have serious qualms about Church teachings and practices. Pope Francis and the Synod participants clearly realized that the more politically controversial aspects of Catholic belief present serious obstacles to communion for young people not predisposed to those beliefs. Thus, they observed that one does not “have to accept fully all the teachings of the Church to take part in certain of our activities for young people. It is enough to have an open mind towards all those who have the desire and willingness to be encountered by God’s revealed truth” (CV 234).
Without discussing the merits of any one way of handling specific issues like the issues of human sexuality mentioned in CV 81, I would like to share some of my observations, at the age of 26, of the way people my age approach religion in general. I hope that this will provide some evidence, even if only anecdotal, of the overwhelming “desire and willingness to be encountered by God’s revealed truth” that I see lurking behind the apparent superficiality and moral laxity of Millennial culture.
Currently, all of my close Catholic friends are people who have come to the Church or returned to the Church as adults, and none of them make picture-perfect orthodox and pious Catholics of the kind that in an ideal world we would all aspire to be. One attends Mass every week but isn’t sure he actually believes in God. Another is a wholehearted believer but doesn’t have much fire in the belly for the controversial social teachings that animated the John Paul II and Benedict XVI pontificates. A third is by and large orthodox but by her own admission takes an oppositional attitude towards God in her prayer life. And yet all of these people have a strong desire for participation in and communion with the Church as the visible structure of a divine presence in the world.
Someone I sometimes talk to online practices a reconstructed form of the religion of pre-Christian Ireland. I also have friends of friends who claim to worship the Olympian gods: Zeus, Hera, Artemis, etc. These people have a robust faith in the divine and the supernatural and most of them are not actively anti-Christian but they feel alienated from traditional monotheistic faith for reasons that are not mine to disclose. For alternatives they have plumbed past that tradition into the almost-forgotten Antique past.
I have a master’s degree in theology from a mainline Protestant seminary that had a large contingent of seminarians who rejected many historical Christian teachings after having been seriously wronged due to their gender, race, or sexuality in their orthodox home parishes. My friends and acquaintances in my master’s program also included a Buddhist folk singer and a Jewish humanist who aspired to be a hospital chaplain. Theologically speaking I was decidedly on the conservative flank of this student body but for much of my time there I was well below average in terms of my commitment to my own religious practice. I almost never prayed.
A number of other people I know and am friends with aren’t in any sense religious and would probably actively resist the suggestion that they should become religious. In some circles this is the position that one is socially expected to hold. These are the infamous “nones” and they are, for the most part, neither spiritually insensitive brutes nor insufferably enlightened self-anointed rationalists. The increasing popularity of astrology among younger adults should on its own be enough to demonstrate that most of the “nones” are not actually reductionist-materialist Richard Dawkins devotees. Moreover, twentysomething and thirtysomething “nones” are some of the most moralistic people I have ever met, even though they are advocating moral positions often very different from those advanced by historical Christianity.
I recently attended the first Mass celebrated by a newly ordained priest three or four years older than me. In his homily he quoted, at some length, a song by the band Paramore, a pop-punk group fronted by a woman named Hayley Williams. Paramore formed in 2005 and has slowly backed away from its original Christian artistic identity since that time. A cultural and artistic product of Millennial religious ambivalence reentered the Church from the mouth of a young priest who probably spent almost as much time in his high school years watching music videos on YouTube as I did.
I would not dream of suggesting that the Church should simply jettison its doctrines to appeal to new demographics or that we should replace Ralph Vaughan Williams with Hayley Williams in our hymnals. The experience of mainline Protestantism in North America and Western Europe shows that this does not work anyway. There is an internet meme showing a middle-aged Steve Buscemi walking down a high school hallway wearing a backwards baseball cap with a skateboard slung over his back. “How do you do, fellow kids?” he asks. This is the image a young person gets from an institution like the Catholic Church uncritically adopting the trappings of youth culture without doing anything to encourage us to reflect on ourselves or reassess our own ways of doing things. It makes for a pathetic and even insulting sight. A Catholicism with staying power with those of my generation with whom there is staying power to be had (“whoever has ears to hear, let him hear”) might in fact look much more “hardcore” culturally or liturgically or politically than I or other Where Peter Is contributors would prefer—then again, it might not.
I hope that these impressions or snapshots of young adult religious life show a greater receptivity to the supernatural and the divine among people my age than is often supposed. People who feel at home in the queer-astrology and boutique-witchcraft world are not desperate for Good News quite as overtly as was the ancient world with its “unknown God” and longed-for savior, but part of the “seeker” mindset is the awareness that something is missing. The Church can and should respond to this by proclaiming that God always offers us more and more, and that if we desire to be encountered by truth, it is God’s truth that is inexhaustible.
Image: Hayley Williams in concert in 2017. From Wikimedia Commons.