Saturday, September 5, 2009

What do young adult Catholics need?

As a single adult Catholic and former Dominican seminarian, and ever since my conversion to Catholicism, I have been interested in the matter of how to reach Catholic young adults to help them go deeper in their faith. It is a vexing issue. Single Catholic adults (especially those in their 20's and 30's), especially men, tend to be rather scarce in a typical parish. There are a lot more Catholic young adults out there than usually attend Sunday Mass. Sadly, a significant portion of Catholics cease regularly practicing their faith during high school or college. At some point, when out on their own, their faith becomes secondary to other concerns.

In many Catholic parishes single adults seem to slip through the cracks. In this post I would like to offer suggestions as to why. Here are a few of my thoughts on this:

1. First, there are simply a lot more single adults than there used to be. A few generations back, most people married in their early-to-mid twenties. Now, the age at which most people marry has increased to the late twenties. Many more people are single into their 30's than used to be the case 3 or 4 decades ago. This phenomenon of waiting longer to marry has increased the number of single adults.

2. A "typical" American parish, it seems to me (and there are notable exceptions), operates according to a model of life that is in some ways no longer relevant in 21st century America. Many parishes still seem to act as though all Catholics go to Catholic school or CCD, receive solid catechesis, are confirmed, live their faith uninterrupted, and get married and begin having children in their early 20's. Increasingly, this is not the case and should not be presumed. In other words, the old pattern of parish ministry--still often in place--did not try to do anything specific for single young adults because parishes 50 years ago did not have many of them. They still operate as though single adults are not a significant part of society. But this approach is by now very outdated.

3. Young adult Catholics are not aware of peers who take their faith seriously and would not know where to find them if they wanted to.

4. When a more specific outreach to single adults is attempted--whether at the parish or diocesan level--it is often poorly done. Such attempts tend to be downright silly and/or superficial and unserious. People tasked with such ministry are sometimes poorly matched for it. Out-of-touch, gimmick-laden cheerleaders who seem to have an excessive need to be seen as youthful and dynamic are not the best personality types for long term success with young adults. (I don't mean to imply that energy is a bad thing, but manufactured energy can be seen through.) Another shortcoming can be not perceiving what single adults most need and desire from the Church. Tailoring a ministry according to needs and desires the target group is not much concerned with is not likely to bear lasting fruit.

5. Older Church attitudes presumed that Catholics would remain practicing Catholics. This may have been true in a bygone era. Once beyond the teenage years there was no particular reason to worry that a large segment of adults would stop practicing the faith. The old way of doing things simply did not envision that many (most?) Catholics would--as young adults--grow distant from the Church. Parishes are not in the habit of welcoming such people back to the Church because they used to be able to assume they had never left.

6. Many families of origin of now-adult Catholics are less attached to their Catholic faith than was true of older generations. This has resulted in young adults whose connection to Catholicism is on shaky ground from the day they first leave home.

7. The post-WWII era of mass communication by electronic media has amplified the ability of skeptics and those who despise the Church to attack the faith on many fronts and in many ways. Youth culture has become increasingly isolated from the adult world, is increasingly indifferent or hostile to Christianity, and has come to have an increasingly longer reach into the attitudes of young adults.

8. People are much more mobile than they used to be. Years ago, even if a person remained single into his late 20's he probably still lived in the vicinity of his childhood home and thus had the support of parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends from childhood. However, nowadays, many single young adults move away from their hometowns. They are alone in a new city and have comparatively little support. Parishes in the past could safely assume that the few adults who were still unmarried had abundant support for their faith from their nearby families and friends. The Church still functions from within this old point-of-view in which it was not necessary to envision large numbers of single adults living in places beyond the easy reach of their family support networks. Thus, many parishes do not adequately recognize a large and growing segment of society that needs special help and support from the Church.

9. When young adult ministries do manage to have some success, often as not, they are not based in parishes. Even thriving extra-parish young adult ministries seem to fall short of being able to strengthen the connection and integration of young adults into their own parishes. Such ministries, though fruitful for a time, tend to be too personality-based and unstable over the long haul. And, ministries which do have some success with young adults don't seem to have many ties with other similarly successful groups. This hinders the potential for others to benefit from those who are successful. Theology on Tap seems to be the only (non-parish) young adult ministry that has some measure of genuinely helpful national cohesion. And this is a specific, limited type of ministry which while it works well has much it cannot do. Much more needs to be done in parishes.

With these background thoughts in place I will attempt in future posts to identify those needs and desires of Catholic young adults that parishes should be striving to address.

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