Where have all the children gone?

Friday, September 23, 2016 - Updated: 4:00 am
By Bob De Witt Correspondent

It’s a common lament from parents who raised their children in the faith but look around their church and ask, “Where are the young people?” They were taught to learn Jesus and love Jesus, but a growing number aren’t always living Jesus today.

National surveys show that about two-thirds of the millennial generation (ages 18-34) who were brought up Catholic still practice the faith. However, nearly a quarter of all millennials don’t identify with any religion, according to the Pew Research Center.

What happened? Some church leaders say many young people today aren’t well-formed spiritually. New studies from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate show more young Catholics are leaving the faith for science, saying Catholicism is incompatible with what they’re learning in school.

The Pittsburgh Catholic recently interviewed four young adults who were raised Catholic but now rarely attend church. They were asked about their religious education, what they like about the church, why they’ve drifted away and their continuing openness to the Lord. Here are their spiritual profiles:

Female college student, age 21:

“I went to Catholic grade school, kept going to church in high school and went on mission trips, but then college came around. I didn’t have to go to Mass and backed away. Now I go to church when I feel I need God’s help.

“I feel better when I go, but it’s just so repetitive and monotone. I want to hear God’s word. I do believe in him, but why can’t I worship on my own? Also, the organ makes me want to go to sleep. I would love to sing, but don’t see myself as part of our parish choir.”

On formation: “I did learn a lot from textbooks; why we receive Communion and what the Catholic religion believes in. But I don’t understand why I have to go to a priest for confession — why can’t I speak to a woman who’s high up in the church?

“We were taught that if you do this or that it’s a sin, and you think the worst of yourself. Why would God judge me so harshly?”

How the church can improve: “People in church need to be more open and welcoming so I would feel good about coming in there. Be friendly when you see a new face.”

Male professional, age 26:

“I went to public schools and universities, taking CCD classes from first grade to confirmation. I have a pretty good understanding of what the church is trying to teach, but not much of the history. I go to Mass on special occasions, like Christmas, Easter and Ash Wednesday.”

What you like about the faith: “I support the teachings, such as ‘Love thy neighbor’ and ‘Don’t steal.’ I try to follow the commandments and be a good person.”

What can the church do better? “When I saw my pastor in social situations, he would say, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you at church, are you still around?’ and make other back-handed comments. Also, people could be more welcoming at Mass.”

Relationship with Jesus or God: “I don’t know how to describe it. I wouldn’t say it’s great. It seems like I talk to God when I’m struggling or under stress. I don’t have a regular prayer life.”

Male college student, age 20:

“I went to Catholic grade school for eight years and now I attend a Catholic college. I don’t go to church often, but I still consider myself a Catholic.”

Why you became inactive: “It was gradual. I used to work on Sundays and didn’t want to go to church on Saturdays, so I made excuses and would justify it later. I still feel fine about my faith, even if I go to Mass once every two months. I don’t need to be in church in order to communicate with God.”

Relationship with Jesus or God: “It’s uncertain. At the end of high school I began asking myself questions that can’t be answered. I began viewing the world in a different way than the Catholic faith, based more on science. I’m no longer sure that I believe in a higher power.”

What can the church do better? “Open up more, be more diverse. Some practices are set in stone; they’re one way all the time.”

Female professional, age 25:

Formation: “I went to Catholic school through sixth grade. I learned more about the faith from my parents than in school. I now go to Mass usually at Christmas and Easter only.”

What teachers could have done better: “I learned about religious history but should have been taught more through actions, like being kind and helping one another instead of just memorizing prayers.”

Disagreement with teachings: “The church needs to follow Pope Francis’ lead in being more loving and compassionate. I fell off after seeing other groups marginalized, like those in same-sex relationships. A lot of important people in my life are gay.”

Relationship with Jesus or God: “I believe in a higher power but want something more tangible. It doesn’t make me feel better to just pray and hope. I need to help people.”

On Mission for The Church Alive! is designed to address many of these issues through improved spiritual formation for people of all ages. It will provide more opportunities for youths to experience the love of Jesus and the power of a church community that is sustained in a life of prayer, study and good works. As the initiative unfolds, it is the prayer of Bishop David Zubik that young people will feel welcomed in our parishes and be invited to share their gifts as they grow in a life of faith.

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