Jamie Manson, writing in National Catholic Reporter on February 28 (“The Church’s new role as a refuge for absolutism”), reflected on a recent conference at Fordham. It was called “Lost? Twenty-Somethings and the Catholic Church.” The secret, apparently, is out: our spots in the pews are cold.
One conference segment was a video of interviews, “captured in guerilla filmmaking style,” with randomly selected Gen Y Catholics and ex-Catholics. Jamie wrote:
Every person interviewed had an aversion to the institutional church’s stances on women, gays and lesbians, and mandatory celibacy for the clergy. All those who attended church struggled to find people from their generation to connect with in their parishes. Most felt that their parishes catered to senior citizens and young families with children. Almost every student resonated deeply with the Church’s social justice tradition. And all interviewees mentioned that they were longing for community.
I began thinking about why I stay. I also thought about how staying makes my life complicated.
My maternal grandparents, a Polish factory worker and a Russian farm girl, registered at a parish in south suburban Chicago in 1950. My parents were married there in 1980. I was baptized there on February 26, 1984; took First Communion there on May 3, 1992; and was confirmed there on October 25, 1998. I’m still there today.
In my parish I learned to appreciate what I now consider the pillars of the Catholic faith. Fingers dipped in holy water, flashing up to my forehead and then to my heart and shoulders, leaving wet spots on my shirt. The bishop, addressing me by my confirmation name (Benedict), smearing spicy chrism across my forehead.
Smoke of incense, a little sweet, a little itchy. Bread and wine, the all-powerful and ever-living God accessible the way lunch would be when I got home. Green palms carried in procession to the beat of hand drums. The Eucharist carried with candles amid the strains of the Pange lingua gloriosi.
Stained glass windows in blazing hues—Mary, St. George, St. Peter, St. Paul, the Miraculous Image of the Most Holy Savior of Montella, the crest of John XXIII. Vigil lights by the gold-plated tabernacle, its doors inset with the words HOLY HOLY HOLY. The altarpiece: Jesus standing serenely atop the stars, clouds puffing up around his feet.
The colors of robes that, like the celestial luminaries in Genesis 1:14, “mark the fixed times, the days and the years.” My elderly South Side Irish pastor reading the Gospel in his exquisitely measured cadence, audibly weighing every word. Lent, making the clock of death run completely backwards from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, “from ashes to fire.”
Notice my pillars are not the Catechism, or canon law, or encyclicals. Assent to propositions was secondary, derivative. Catholicism implanted itself in me forever because it was about an incarnate God who was unashamed of our bodily senses, who used taste, touch, sight, sound and smell in order to truly be Immanuel, “God-with-us.” All this I picked up by osmosis in my parish. It earned my loyalty.
So I have remained loyal. And this has exacted a toll. Some of it is purely local: people die, move away. Priests shuffle in and out. Priorities change with them.
But the toll has also been exacted in the ways Jamie outlines. When I kneel in a pew, I convince myself that I kneel to God. I convince myself that I do not kneel to those who dismiss my gay and lesbian friends, and my unmarried, sexually active friends, as heathens and hedonists. When I am in line for Communion, I look for a face besides mine that is older than twenty but younger than fifty. I usually look in vain.
I desire community with my fellow millennials, who intuitively know where I’m at. Yet this is unlikely at our endless succession of Knights of Columbus fish fry nights. I hear homilies at church that are often, maddeningly enough, about the virtues of going to church. (“We’re already here,” I think, rolling my eyes.) But I am never exhorted to look for Jesus in the street or in the gutter, to be an outcast with the outcasts, to fling away all that I have and follow him. After all, how many dollars do Anthonys and Francises donate?
Still, I remember the tastes and smells, the names and dates, the fixed times, the days and the years, and I stay, gritting my teeth and leaning into the wind. And I pray for a Church that will run after me and my generation, leaving the ninety-nine sheep and scouring the hills to bring back the one, lest the day come when only one remains and ninety-nine have left.