Take a moment to conjure up your image of a “practicing” Catholic. What does she or he look like? What makes her or him a so-called “practicing” Catholic
FutureChurch recently hosted a teleconference entitled, “Millennials Speak for Themselves: Church, Community, and Catholicity.” Three Catholics of the millennial generation Annie Burns, Michelle Maddex, and FutureChurch program director Russ Petrus presented their understanding of what makes them Catholic and shared their hopes for the Catholic community in the future. (You can download the conversation at https://futurechurch.org/podcasts). Chances are, each of these young Catholics described a “practicing” Catholic that looks quite different from the image that you conjured up in your head.
Born between 1981 and 1997, Catholic Millennials are now young adults and they represent the Church’s future both as leaders and as church-goers. They are the future “practicing Catholic” So it’s no wonder that millennials have been on everyone’s minds the last several years. Type “Millennials” as a search term in any of the major Catholic news websites and up will pop a vast collection of articles, editorials, and blog posts commenting on the latest sociological research you can read through. Many of them offer ideas to help keep Millennials from “leaving” the Church or to “bring them back.” The Leadership Conference of Women Religious asked Jamie Manson to participate on a panel at their 2012 Assembly to speak to the experience of young lay women and how congregations of women religious might more fully embrace them. And in January of 2017, Pope Francis wrote a letter to young people announcing “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” as the theme for the October 2018 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
Indeed, much has been written and said about Millennial Catholics. FutureChurch envisioned “Millennials Speak for Themselves” as a space of encounter between millennial Catholics and their predecessors, offering older Catholics the opportunity to hear from younger Catholics directly. So what do future “practicing Catholics” look like and what does it mean for Catholic institutions and communities? Several themes emerged as the conversation unfolded.
Their relationship with Jesus. All three of the young Catholics on the panel described a relationship with Jesus that is rooted in the Jesus of the Gospels. Speaking about what she desires in her faith life, Burns said, “each of my desires is, at its root, pointed toward the desire to follow Jesus: to live and love as Jesus did.” Maddex said that she “felt the closest to God [she] had ever felt in [her life]” when she was connected the suffering of the Salvadoran people. She continued, “Jesus showed us the way of living out a preferential option for the poor.” Petrus summed up his relationship with Jesus this way, “I believe [our] relationship is with Jesus as ‘liberator’ or ‘radical’…This Jesus is both beyond us but also in our very midst in the lives and stories of the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable, and at once loves us and constantly calls us to conversion.”
For these millennial Catholics, their relationship with Jesus is the foundation of their hopes and dreams, their challenges, and their expectations for themselves and for the Church.
Their Sacramental World View and Spirituality. Because of their relationship with Jesus these young Catholics all described a sacramentality and spirituality that isn’t confined inside walls of a church building, but is lived out in the world: “the hours spent outside of a chapel,” as Burns put it. “I find God both in the throng of trees in nature and in the forest of people making their way down Michigan Avenue. I experience the sacramental both in the breaking of the bread at mass, and in the breaking of hotdogs with those who might otherwise go hungry,” she says. For Maddex, each decision she makes in her life is a practice of spirituality: “I try to live out my Catholic identity by constantly orienting and reorienting myself towards Gospel values and choosing a different way of life than the normative in our culture of individualism and capitalism. I try to make decisions with an awareness of how they affect so many people other than myself – decisions about what I eat, how I respond to people I see in the street, and where I live.” Burns echoes this Catholic intentionality, “I also desire to live simply. I desire to live with intention.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Eucharist, the other Sacraments, and traditional Catholic prayers aren’t out of the equation for these young Catholics. “I can pray both in Latin and liturgical dance,” says Burns. Petrus agrees, “For us, being a practicing Catholic is so much more than [going to Mass on a weekly basis]…being a practicing Catholic…can also mean having great conversations informed by faith about the important questions of our time, or engaging in the work of justice, or sharing a meal with others.”
Their sacramental world view and spirituality compels them out of the church building and into the streets, the global south, the neighborhood plagued by poverty and oppression and back into the communities they are a part of.
The community they are looking for. All three recognize that living out their faith in these ways is a daunting and often isolating endeavor. And so they long for a community of disciples to be a part of. “It is important for me to be connected to others who are also committed to these values to provide me with nourishment and accountability…communities of faith where we can pray together, break bread together and connect our daily reality and the suffering of the world to the Gospel, learning together, how to live out the Gospel in today’s context,” says Maddex.
For each of these young Catholics, being a part of a community who shares their commitment to justice also means being a part of communities – faith-based and otherwise – that actively seek to call themselves to account, to open their doors to all, and to right the past wrongs that they have committed. For Burns learning to both love and critique her community is a part of being Catholic, “In college I was blessed to be surrounded by communities who were willing to critique structures that perpetuate injustice…these bright, hope-filled companions of mine taught me that you can both love and critique those institutions…These humans are some of the best Catholics I know, even as they aren’t the most consistent mass-goers.” Maddex, also describes the tension, “As I have fallen in love with this Church I have also felt the pain of the way it is too often exclusive and not fully living out the Gospel values that Jesus proclaimed…. I find myself sitting in Mass in tears, praying that the Church may become more inclusive and made strides toward gender justice.” All three specifically named the way the Church has excluded or “othered” – in Petrus’s words – women and the LGBTQ community. Each expressed the longing to be embraced by a community where they could be safe to be who they are -- “to be both sinner and beloved…both imperfect and worthy (Burns) --” knowing that they as individuals and as a generation have much to offer as the Church seeks to fully cooperate in the building of God’s kindom.
How can we respond?As Church leaders and religious communities continue to ponder questions like “where are the young people” or “what does our future look like” they would do well to reflect on the words and witnesses of these faith-filled young Catholics. How can these leaders begin to work with these young people to create communities of faith that place Jesus of the Gospel and social justice values at the center? How can they work with young people to develop communities that foster and support expansive spiritual practices that lead to a faith that does justice? What can they learn from young people about both trusting and loving their institutions while critiquing them and calling them to conversion.
As these young people come of age they continue to defy the grim picture that sociologists and commentators painted early on. “Generation me” has turned into “generation WE” and a generation of “trophy kids” who earned awards for simply participating are now adults who “take it at face value that each person is created in God’s own image and likeness” (Petrus). After all, millennials are the generation raised on the question, “What would Jesus do (WWJD)?” and -- according to Petrus – “took it seriously.” And it may look different from the image that came to mind when you were asked to consider a “practicing” Catholic, but these young Catholics are certainly forging a future of what it means to “practice” Catholic.
As FutureChurch continues its work to make changes that will empower all Catholics to participate fully in Church life and leadership, we are developing resources for a new initiative “Emerging Models of Parish and Community Life.” And as we develop this collection of essays, podcasts, testimonies and other resources, it will be with an eye toward answering the question “what is the future of ‘practicing’ Catholic.”