We’re just not that into you
Why aren’t more young adults making it to Mass? We went straight to the source for answers. Their reasons, they say, range from a crowded calendar to disenchantment with the church to just prefering to stay in with the Sunday paper.
WHEN MOLLY MATTESICH SERVED as a Peace Corps volunteer two years ago in the West African nation of Mali, she relied on audio tapes of Sunday Mass to stay connected to her Catholic faith during her two-year tenure in the predominantly Muslim nation.
“It was the first time I’d ever been without an organized Catholic Church,” said the 27-year-old, who now lives in Washington, D.C. Mattessich, who had sung weekly in a Newman Center choir during her years as a Wellesley College student, drew strength during this challenging time from her favorite church song, “Be Not Afraid.” “It became my mantra during my time in the Peace Corps,” she says.
But after a few months, tapes and mantras weren’t enough to sustain Mattessich’s Catholic connection, and she now identifies her Peace Corps years as a spiritual turning point. “I listened to the same services over and over, and it became hard to keep up without the community,” she says. “I started journaling a lot more, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I can sort of live without this, maybe.’”
Complicating matters further was Mattessich’s growing awareness of the lack of church leadership roles held by women, which began to trouble her more and more. Witnessing the widespread effects of AIDS in Africa caused her to question the church’s teaching on contraception. Then, after she returned to the United States, her favorite Boston parish closed. It was the last straw.
Mattessich says she “almost never” attends Mass anymore. When she does, she harbors negative feelings toward what she experiences.
“When I go to Catholic services now, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, you people have no connection to reality,’” she says.
Mattessich has decidedly relinquished her place in the pews for the time being, and a multitude of young adult Catholics have chosen to do the same. Whether their absences stem from a disagreement with church teachings or the seductive powers of the Sunday paper, for the church, the widespread lack of engagement among its younger members is an inconvenient truth whose underpinnings are hard to discern.
Missing in inaction
Only 24 percent of young adult Catholics attend Mass every week, 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 forthcoming 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 differentiates them from their parents’ generation, many of whom wholly internalized what they were taught as children: to miss Mass was a grave offense, even a mortal sin. While some may criticize younger adults for not being particularly reflective in their given reasons for not attending Mass, it’s worth noting that many baby boomers and their pre-Vatican II predecessors attended weekly Mass without much reflection on their motivations for attending.
Kevin Burns, 27, a currency trader in Providence, Rhode Island, counts himself among the more than 55 percent of young adult Catholics who do not regularly attend church. Burns acknowledges that Catholicism no longer holds the pivotal place in his life it did during his childhood, which was formed by regular CCD classes and four years of Catholic high school education. While Burns says he drifted away from the church during his college years without much reflection, as he grows older, it’s ideological disagreements that have kept him away. He cited a few incendiary homilies he heard in his hometown parish that were characterized by what he perceived as overly fearful attitudes toward modern science and pop culture.
A July 1 New York Times article, which quoted a senior Vatican official’s call for excommunication of stem cell researchers who utilize human embryos, troubled Burns further.
“I know that religion is not like a menu, where you pick and choose,” Burns says. “I wonder, ‘How Catholic am I if I really don’t buy that?’”
For Burns’ wife, Shannon, a 27-year-old special education teacher, her years at Providence College, where she and Kevin met, also marked a time of turning away from church, though her own misgivings had more to do with her compatriots in the campus chapel pews.
“The people who were adamant about going were also the people you saw out at the bars trashed the night before, hooking up with other people,” Shannon Burns says. “It made a mockery of it and kind of cheapened it for me. After a while it didn’t mean as much.”
For other young adults, practical rather than ideological factors prevent them from attending Mass regularly.
Josh Nelson, a 29-year-old consultant in Chicago, said that, despite the convenience of a parish located four blocks from his apartment, other recreational weekend activities tend to regularly crowd out Sunday Mass.
“Saturday night has taken precedence. When I’m out late on Saturday, [Mass is] definitely the easiest thing to cut out of a busy day,” he says. “It’s very easy to go when that is the environment or the type of people you surround yourself with, but I find myself less surrounded by people who go every week. When I’m with certain friends I’ll go—no question. But it’s less of a priority if it doesn’t fit with what I already have planned.”
According to Nelson, religion is rarely discussed among the group of young professionals he regularly socializes with in Chicago.
“Except for joking around with stories about how it affected how you were raised, it doesn’t come up much,” Nelson says. “Most times you may or may not know someone’s religious affiliation, unless they’re Jewish.”
Unlike their parents’ generations, many of whom enjoyed the cultural support of Irish, Polish, and Italian Catholic neighborhood enclaves, today’s young adults inhabit locales that are far more socially and religiously diverse. As Ethan Watters reported in his 2004 book Urban Tribes (Bloomsbury), college-educated young adults often draw support from close-knit communities of friends—often from diverse religious or non-religious backgrounds—that form during the ever-increasing years between college and married life. Young adults often live, work, share meals, and vacation with these groups, which often function as family for twenty- and thirtysomethings living far from home.
Though people like Nelson enjoy the support of a close-knit group of friends, other young adults attribute their missing Mass to a sense of isolation and a lack of social networks, a trend that author Robert Putnam chronicled in his 2000 book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster).
Carrie Salinas, a 21-year-old living on Oahu, a Hawaiian island 4,000 miles from her small-town Indiana home, says that, had her husband’s military position not taken the newly married couple far from family, she probably would still be attending Mass every Sunday, as she has for her whole life alongside her parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
“The major reason I don’t go is because I was always used to having somebody to go with,” Salinas says. “I miss being able to go every week with my family. What I miss most is not the Mass aspect of it, but what I associate with the tradition, how we would all go together to my grandparents’ house for a couple of hours afterwards.”
Tom Silva, a 38-year-old Chicago marketing director who describes himself as being “estranged” from the church, said he has found that being a Christian in the “real world” can be very isolating.
“You’re isolated often from your peer group and from mainstream society, and it can be very difficult, very lonely,” says Silva, a passionate devotee of art, philosophy, and screenwriting. “It sometimes feels like religion almost has an exclusionary quality.”
He says he gradually lost interest in attending church after being unable to find a parish that offered a forum for discussion of things like poetry, music, and art.
Silva’s desire for more integration with a wider creative culture hints at another chasm: The gap between the church milieu and the pop culture-saturated world young adults inhabit. While they don’t expect Father to channel Jon Stewart or Chris Rock, young adults often find difficulty connecting what they experience inside church with the complicated mix of media messages, work, relationships, and daily ethical dilemmas that await them outside of church.
“I wish the church had a way of trying to enter that world so that there isn’t a sort of strict separation—that’s where the passions of young people are, and these are the places where things resonate most powerfully,” Silva says.
Searching for silence
It’s difficult, however, to characterize the needs of an entire generation. Mary Dashmaw, for example, a 28-year-old living in Phoenix, wishes that certain trappings of pop culture hadn’t made their way into the music at Mass.
According to Dashmaw, a manager in the health care industry, the Masses she has attended in the past haven’t fostered sufficient opportunity for quiet reflection. Too many voices competed for her attention.
“Church started to feel really loud,” Dashmaw says. “They had a band, not just with singing, but with drum kits. It was very distracting. . . . I think it was originally intended for the youth Mass, but it ended up at all the Masses. I would get really agitated.”
Dashmaw says at one point she found spiritual solace in the Latin Mass, which she experienced while studying abroad in Italy.
“That is where it felt most pure,” she says. “The rituals were really clear and unfogged. I had a feeling of calm, of feeling that connection to something higher than myself. It was a quiet, solemn time where I could think.”
Despite the tranquility she found in the Latin Mass, other disruptive voices persisted.
“The judgment became deafening to me as well,” Dashmaw says, referring to a contentious homily she once heard on abortion. “The priest was demonizing the choices of people who have abortions. . . . I felt there were other things that could have been drawn out of the gospel that day. It was so blatant.”
Dashmaw said that while she would not have an abortion herself, she doesn’t believe that it’s the church’s right to impose its views on others.
Gone for long?
Though young adults say they miss certain aspects of attending Mass, many also say that substantial changes either to church teaching, the Mass itself, or their own lifestyles would have to take place for them to resume regular Mass attendance.
None of the twenty- and thirtysomethings interviewed for this article has ceased to call himself or herself Catholic, though some have dabbled in other faith traditions and others add qualifiers to their religious self-identification, referring to themselves only as “reluctantly Catholic” or “raised Catholic.”
“I never say just ‘Catholic,’ ” Molly Mattessich says. “I say ‘liberal Catholic’ or ‘feminist Catholic.’ It’s extremely important. When I hear myself say I’m a Catholic, I sort of cringe at what that might mean to other people.”
Mattessich says she has tried periodically attending services at a Unitarian church. While she has found them to be thoughtful, she missed the Catholic Mass.
“I miss Eucharist,” Mattessich says. “I miss songs that are familiar to me. My parents say, ‘You need to find a church; you need to find somewhere you can sing because you always used to love that.’”
Mattessich says that if she were able to find the kind of parish she envisions, she would consider returning to Mass regularly.
“I could get back with a good, vibrant, strong community with progressive-thinking clergy,” she says. “I feel like you can be a Catholic and not believe all the written doctrines of the church. I want to be in a place where people think that.”
Kevin and Shannon Burns say they’ll make a concerted effort to attend church regularly when they have children because they believe it will provide their kids with a strong moral foundation.
“I want them to grow up with something to believe in, and the main values that the church is built on are fabulous—love one another as you love yourself, be honest and truthful, don’t hurt people,” says Shannon.
“It teaches kids in a way that’s not just coming from their parents,” says Kevin. “There’s a certain set of values that priests are able to articulate in a way that other people aren’t.”
But even though he wants his future children to be exposed to Catholic values, he’s not as open anymore to being influenced by them himself. “I see the value in it for when we have kids, but maybe not so much for me,” he says.
Since she last attended Mass a year ago, Mary Dashmaw says that spending quiet time outdoors either walking her dog or riding her horse has become a solemn, meditative experience for her, a source of tranquility similar to what she used to experience at Mass, though she still feels a spiritual void.
“I would love to go back,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m deluding myself, but when people actually say what the church stands for, that gay people aren’t welcome in the church, that’s when I realize that I can no longer be a part of it. But if there were church reforms, and if we were to go back to a more basic Mass, I would be proud to be a Catholic.”
Josh Nelson realizes that returning to church regularly would require a personal commitment on his part.
“It would involve making a conscious decision that it’s something I want to do,” Nelson says. “It’s not like I’m looking for it to be this life-changing experience, or that I’m looking for a parish that’s fantastic, invigorating or whatever, but it would be a matter of me making it more of a priority, or involving myself in something at the church that would keep me coming back.”
Nelson says he views the Mass not so much in terms of what he is able to gain from it, but as a time where “once a week you are giving your time to God.” It doesn’t matter as much to him that the liturgy doesn’t seem especially tuned in to his life as a young professional.
“People will say that the church’s views are outdated, or maybe it doesn’t speak your language or to my everyday activities, but that’s Catholicism. Religion doesn’t change with the times. It is what it is,” Nelson says.
Many young adults, however, do wish that the church would change with the times, though most recognize that it probably won’t happen anytime soon. For people like Molly Mattessich, however, the consequences encompass more than missing an hour of Sunday Mass.
“My prayer life has unfortunately faded away,” Mattessich says. “I find it hard to reconnect with God in the same way it’s hard to reconnect with a good friend after a long time away. Maybe my expectations are too high. It’s just hard.”
Renée M. LaReau is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis, 2003), a book on faith and discernment for young adults. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. This article appeared in the October 2006 (Volume 71, Number 10; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.
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