In my previous post I gave some ideas as to why young adult Catholics are not, generally speaking, very engaged in their faith--and especially not engaged in the activities of their local parishes.
Now, to continue this line of thinking about what young adult Catholics need, two movements present themselves for exposition. The first: What realities do young adult Catholics face that are most relevant for Catholic parishes? The second: How might parishes begin to do a better job of addressing them? In this post I will take up the first.
The following realities (in no particular order) are things which I think are especially pressing issues for American young adults. Some of this, of course, comes by way of my own life experience, and some comes by way of observation.
Many single young adults experience the following:
1. A sense of isolation. This is in the form of being only very weakly connected to people with whom they regularly associate. And this, in spite of the fact that a typical young adult may have many acquaintances (hundreds of Facebook friends!), even many of what they refer to as friends. But sadly, these relationships, while fun at times and a source of enjoyment on some level, are not very deep. These connections are, in the end, thin and tenuous, easily broken and then discarded in the ever-growing bin of defunct relationships. For many, their day-to-day circle of human relationships is like standing next to a moving walkway at a busy airport--a constantly moving stream of faces, approaching, passing by, and receding as quickly as they came, the supply of new unfamiliar faces never ending. Another way to characterize this is to say that they lack meaningful community.
2. A lack of stability and a poor sense of personal identity. These are two sides of the same coin, and are related to no. 1. In order to have a firm sense of self-identity--of who you are in the world--you need to have some measure of stability. A significant component of our self-image is shaped by how other people respond and interact with us. But, when our lives as young adults have not had the benefit of a stable presence of a few people (in addition to immediate family) who have known us for a significant time of our lives, it is harder (though not impossible) to receive a meaningful reflection of ourselves through the eyes of others. This complicates the solidification of a secure self-image that should be firming up in early adulthood. Many young adults are able to give an impression that they are confident and secure in themselves. But I suspect despite appearances this is often not the case. In the secret realm of the inner reaches of their own hearts, they are still yearning to know themselves.
3. A desire for some sort of spirituality (or, religion, if they are not put off by the term), yet at the same time feeling at a loss for how to proceed. Another way to characterize this might be to say that young adults sense a need to be connected to something beyond, and greater than, themselves. They need to pray (even if they don't prefer this term). Their souls are not at peace, and at some level this disquiet yearns for resolution.
4. Emotional and/or psychological immaturity. I'm not sure how to describe or substantiate this. But, I think it is true. In part, I suggest this is rooted in our society's overemphasis on turning inward into ourselves. We are told to look inside for the keys to many of the most important things in life, things like identity, morals, purpose, etc. While this is partly true--it is not entirely true. And people who attempt to look only inward to find the roots of all they need for a joyful and stable life are eventually going to become, ironically, scattered, rootless, unselfpossessing individuals. This is not because being self-reflective is bad--within reason it is good. However, it must be regularly balanced and accompanied by other meaningful and deep relationships (with other people, and, most importantly, with God). Young adults tend, I think, to have overly vulnerable, and/or too-easily-influenced emotional lives. They have been shaped by a youth culture that seems to place a priority on readily experiencing highly charged emotional reactions to life. However, this culture encourages emotional drama that is disproportionate to the realities evoking the response. A certain superficiality to human emotional life is ingrained via the off-kilter affective habits of American youth culture. This produces adults who have the psychological unease to realize, first, that emotional depth and intensity is an important and proper part of a fulfilling life, and yet, second, that their personal experience of their own emotions is often out-of-sorts in some way (either too out-of-control or too easily effected by things that are ultimately not significant or meaningful). Young adults are at a loss for how to have emotional passion in a way that is properly balanced and attuned to what is most significant in life. How to be passionate in a way that is nonetheless amicable with stability and meaningfulness and that nurtures a healthy interior life rather than contributes to anxiety and self-doubt?
5. An absent or minimal sense of purpose in life. There is a significant exception to this (and this ties in to no. 4). Some adults are so distracted and caught-up in their daily activities that they never stop to notice that they don't have a firm and hearty understanding of what the point of it all is. (Or, they have permitted themselves to acquire a habit of being satisfied with superficial thrills or distractions, such as video games, internet surfing and socializing, TV, video, etc.) But even in such cases, I would claim that they still suffer from an inner angst the cause of which they cannot pin down. Those who are conscious that they do not have a solid sense of purpose in life are still at a loss for how to resolve their ennui.
6. A desire to "make a difference," but not being sure how. Human beings who have not killed their consciences want to help other people somehow. We want to be a blessing for others. But what is the best way for each of us to make a lasting positive impact?
7. Confusion and anxiety about the meaning and purpose of marriage and the role of the family in relation to society. All the associated concerns having to do with sexuality, dating, male-female relationships, finding the right spouse, I would put under this broad subject. Also, related anxieties about how to enter into a marriage in a way that increases the likelihood of building a loving, close-knit family. How should a person approach serious problems or absences from his own family history? What can a single young adult do now before engagement and marriage that will help make him or her a better spouse, mother, or father in the future?
8. Confusion over masculinity and femininity. This is related to no. 7 but distinctive enough that I'll give it its own number. What does it mean to be a "real man"? What does it mean to be a "real woman"? How does one become more authentically masculine or feminine without adopting a stereotype or taking on traits that do not fit naturally with one's own individual personality? How do we tell the difference between authentic manhood or womanhood and their counterfeits?
9. Uncertainty about one's vocation. What is a person truly "meant" to do in life? What is our life calling; how do we discern this? Is it going to come in one moment of clarity; do we come to it gradually over time; is it different for different people? How do we best engage others to help us grow in understanding in this area? How do we elicit God's help in this, and how do we recognize His guidance?
Just a few things here! Of course, not every young and single adult is troubled by all of these. And the degree to which any one of these issues impacts a person varies. But, I do think they are truly serious issues for many. How might the Church become better at serving young adults in these and other areas of great need?