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.