Where are all the young people?

Last month, a friend and I attended a local CTA event. As usual, we were the only two people under the age of 45 (possibly 50) in the room. As usual, we were fawned over as the token young’uns, encouraged to participate, and asked “where all the other young people were.”

To which I responded, “They’re gone. They’ve left. Almost all my friends were raised Catholic, but Catholicism didn’t nurture them, they didn’t know organizations like CTA existed, and they moved on. They know about CTA because of me, but it’s too late. They’re being spiritually fed in other places, and they have no motivation to come back.”

It was immediately clear that this was not the answer the querant wanted to hear. She pressed her lips together, frowned, and walked away. I think she’d wanted me to shrug and say innocently, “I don’t know where all the young people are. EVERYONE should be here!” But I do know, which is why I told her.

I’m so grateful for CTA, and especially the work of Next Generation and those who have supported it. But I’m so tired of being hounded to “bring more young people” as though I’m keeping CTA a secret from my other young friends (which I’m not by a long shot). I went to a progressive Catholic college, where I actively participated in Catholic activities on campus, formed relationships with the Benedictine nuns who were my professors, and wrote about Catholicism as it intersected with ethics and the need for progressive reform. And if my level of solitary, CTA-type involvement at a liberal Catholic university didn’t put CTA on my radar, how in the world is anyone else in my generation going to know it exists? While I’ve heard CTA-ers claim that they “recruit” on college campuses, I have trouble believing their efforts are very active if they didn’t even reach a prime target like me. (For the record, I only found out about CTA by chance, when I happened to get back in touch with a professor who I’d happened to write a women’s ordination paper for, the week before Reverand Nicolosi happened to be saying her first Mass in a city where I would happen to be that weekend. It was only the intersection of ALL those circumstances  for an older CTA-er’s light bulb to go off that maybe she should tell me this organization existed).

Ultimately, I think the only criteria that makes me different from my formerly Catholic friends is that I loved Catholicism too much to leave it, despite my best efforts (or perhaps I only have a stronger masochistic streak than my friends do). I tried; I explored other denominations and other spiritualities, but nothing “fed” me the way Catholicism did. Because of this, I happened to still be around when I found out about CTA. But many of my friends didn’t have that experience; they didn’t have any motivation to hold onto Catholicism when so much of it conflicted with their values and spiritual cores. So I think the only way to consistently bring young people to the organization is to “catch them” before they’ve given up, usually in the college years when no one is hovering over their shoulders to guilt them into Mass or make sure they don’t venture down the path of other spiritualities. But no one seems to be interested in catching young Catholics in that place of questioning that is the most fertile spiritual ground. And when an effort IS made to connect with those Catholics, it’s in a crusade to bombard them with “answers” rather than really honoring the questions (:: cough cough :: Theology on Tap :: cough::). The message exploring Catholics need to hear is, “You’re exploring, and that’s awesome. But there’s still a place for you here — even if you bring a whole new you when you return. There’s room for that.” But too often, the message we hear is, “You’re exploring, shame on you, get your butt back in that pew this instant, and STAY there (or else you aren’t ‘really’ Catholic).”

I’m incredibly saddened by the rate at which Catholicism bleeds young, spiritually seeking, intelligent people. But I’m not at all surprised — except that the reasons for our absence are still such a mystery to those who have gone before us.

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About Lacey Louwagie

I'm a feminist, a writer, an editor, and a seeker. I co-edited "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics" (ACTA 2012) and authored "Where I First Met God" in "Unruly Catholic Women Writers II" (SUNY Press 2013). You can learn more about me at www.laceylouwagie.com.

9 thoughts on “Where are all the young people?

  1. I think you got this just right, Lacey. I’m about as sick and tired of “where are the young folks” as you are. To your incredibly wise argument of why people leave, I would only add that many also feel condemned by the Church for disagreeing with certain teachings (e.g. contraceptives, woman’s ordination, a voice of the laity in decision making, etc…) that they feel that if they stay, they will always be “Bad Catholics.” Who wants to go to church and constantly be told that they are living the religion wrong?

    I also think you might be right that those of who stay are a bit more masochistic than those who leave. Or is it that we stay because it is too good, we love it, and we can’t help but make what we love better? It’s hard to tell what the pain does for us.

  2. Where the young folks are!
    I love the reference to ghosts of past, present, and future because I love Dickens and the story of Christmas.
    I am happily making my debut today on this site as the minister’s cat–another Dickens/Victorian reference that helps me introduce myself. Does anyone recognize the reference or my nickname?

    The blogs from L. and B. are heroic responses to those painful questions about the young folks. Your observations really resonate with me. I read your posts and just felt like I made a friend. I know where the young people are. I am one of them, and I am with them. I have a young face and a very old soul. I am quite familiar with what it is like to often be the youngest in a gathering of disciples and friends of Jesus. LIke you and all of us, I am a member of the new generation and the new leadership. Surrounded by older wiser people, I am like a magnet for anything ancestral or vintage. I have walked many steps beside one with a walker or a cane. Do you know how hard it is to move that slow when you can dance as fast as I do?
    I don’t know who is searching most–the older or the younger. They were searching and asking for the young ones. You perhaps were searching for someone else or something else. My father told me that loves descends generationally noting that we are loved first before we love others. I am fascinated with the intergenerational dynamics of ministry. Can you tell?

    To answer the question, “where are the young folks?” I offer this reply of good news:

    This evening the very very young will proces together, walking together to bring the Christ child to the crib–the finest arrival and most beautiful advent of all. The “Christ bearer” (the child who carries the Christ child) usually the youngest, will be surrounded by light bearers, (children carrying lit candles). The intermediately young, somewhat young, and used to be young will be readers and heralds of good news.

    The young and the old all of us together again will gather together this evening intergenerationally related, committed, and involved in celebrating the mass of Christ. With anticipation for the news and joy for the arrival, I remain your angelic herald. Bring me my trumpet and tambourine!

  3. On this blog, posted just one day earlier is an entry called “A Few Too Many” the subject of which is over population. If CTA is asking its members to maintain a low birth rate, at least one answer the question about where all the young people are seems to me to be that they were never born.

  4. I taught R.E. for several years to 5th and 6th graders. If you saw the student text for the class you would immediately realize why young people are abandoning the church in droves. The text was full of worldly stuff which had very little to do with the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Try asking young people what the significance of Jesus Christ’s sinless life, death & resurrection is and what it changed, and you will find they simply don’t know.

    If the truth about, and the power in, Jesus Christ isn’t revealed to children, they will think Jesus Christ is like any other leader of a religion and that Christianity is only as good as all the other religions. It also doesn’t help that parents don’t understand the uniqueness of Christianity and live a worldly existence.

    The combination of poor training, poor parenting and parents who live like most every other parent, creates children who don’t know the truth and therefore, can’t live in truth.

    Look at the churches that are growing both here in the west and in areas of the world where Christians are persecuted and you will find children are given the truth and the parents know the truth and power in Christ and therefore, live a distinctively different lifestyle from the world.

    Christianity that is not Christ focused is simply not Christianity and will have no power and will not progress to the next generation (Thanks be to God!). Christianity that is Christ focused has power and will be transmitted from generation to generation. Always has and always will.

    “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the POWER of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

  5. Lacey – you hit so many nails on their respective heads. It saddens me to see how the church is bleeding the young and hungry, and it’s a constant struggle to stay active in the church, not only because of my disagreement with certain teachings, but also because it feels a bit like the church isn’t all that interested in having me around anyway – there are virtually no young adults at my local church, unless they have kids.

    I’ve tried more than once to just walk away, but like you said, nothing else out there feeds me like Catholicism. For me, it’s the Eucharist. The centrality of it (even in non-canonically approved spaces, such as small faith communities or masses led by women priests) is so central to my spirituality. What eventually brought me back (for good, I guess) was receiving the very message you described from a very dear Benedictine sister.

    And I am in complete, utter agreement with your analysis of Theology on Tap and it’s relations – very rarely does it engage young people in the way we desire, but instead gives us pat answers.

    In regards to the “where are the young people?” line of questioning, I would like for the questioners to acknowledge that there are young people HERE, active, willing to take on leadership roles and be integrated into the movement as equals as opposed to being tokenized for our youth. I think that once the “young people” are fully integrated and viewed as partners, our numbers and visibility in the movement will naturally increase.

  6. Lacey, You are the very kind of Catholic young adult I am looking for. My wife and I are now full time Lay Missionaries in the Catholic Church. Having each become Catholic in the last three years we too are appalled by the lack of young adults in the Church. We come from a charismatic background and have hunted down some Charismatic Catholic events. They’re all old too.

  7. We are seeking ways to keep young adults in the Church. I liked what you said about reaching them at the thinking stage. We are now staff members with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), who has a Catholic branch called Kerygma Teams. Presently all of their activities are overseas. We are working to start a K-Teams school in the USA, beginning in Texas, where we are. My wife Lori and I would love your input on reaching young adults before they leave the Catholic Church or God completely. Visit our website at http://alanandloriharris.com

    thanks, Alan and Lori Harris

  8. I think part of the reason youg people are leaving the Church is becasue society itself has become rather secular and humanist- which is to say Godless and self-centered. Society does not reinforce the beliefs which are instilled in young people, and most especially in college many religious beliefs are totally undermined by the liberal college professors. Religion is seen as an infantile, unintellectual, unesoteric creation of stupid people. All those who are “enlightened” and “educated” have grown out of an immature belief in religion.

    In many ways, even the Catholic Church has become infected with this secular thinking. So called “Catholic Universities” spend their time discussing ways (all in the name of the God of openmindeness and tolerance) Catholic Doctrines can be made to be more “acceptable” to the modern world, (which usually involves a radical change in doctrine- ordain women, do away with celibacy, democratic run churches, etc.) rather then figuring out how to evangelize the world with the truth of God as held by the Universal Church.

    The reality is that dioceses and bishops who are faithful to God’s Word as taught and handed on by the Church are thriving with young people. Catholic Universities faithful to the constant teaching of the Church are thriving. These same diocese have had an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Faithfulness to God brings life. Unfaithfulness brings death. If you want to attract young people , evangelize them into God’s truth, and trust God’s Grace.

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