Catholic Theological Union LogoCatholic Theological UnionLearn@CTUCatholics on CallCatholic Common Ground Initiative

Young Adults and the Catholic Church

by Robin Ryan, C.P. | January 27, 2011

Fr. Robin Ryan, CP gave this talk on "Young Adults and the Catholic Church" at the Symposium "Moving Forward in Hope", sponsored by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, on September 17, 2010. The presentation was also published in origins (November 11, 2010 - Volume 40 - Number 23)

It is a distinct privilege for me to be part of this conference and to be able to share some thoughts with you about young adult Catholics and the Church. I thank Brother Paul Bednarczyk and Sister Charlene Diorka for their creative initiative in organizing this conference and also in commissioning the study of younger religious that we have been discussing. Whatever conclusions we arrive at through our dialogue together, this conversation and the initiatives that result from it will certainly contribute to the well being of the larger Church and consecrated life in the United States.

I will share with you this evening some reflections about young adults in our society and young adult Catholics, taken from my experience at Catholics on Call and my research. We also have invited three young adults to be with us for a conversation following my remarks: Sr. Angela Gertsema, ASCJ,  Mr. Matthew Kuczora, CSC, and Ms. Megan Sherrier. We have asked them to share their insights about their own vocational discernment and about the concerns and aspirations of contemporary young adult Catholics. 

I became involved in helping start the Catholics on Call program when I came to teach at Catholic Theological Union in 2004, and I have been studying the literature about young adult Catholics since that time. Since I first read the 2009 CARA study of younger religious, I have been trying to relate the findings of this study to what I have read about and experienced firsthand from young adults. I am still reflecting on the connections and correlations between these two bodies of material. I consider this to be a work in progress.

One personal note that includes a word of caution. I have given a number of talks about young adults and faith in various settings during the past five years.  And, to tell the truth, I find that these talks are getting more difficult to write. You would think that the opposite would be the case. The reason I say that is because the more I speak with young adults, and the more studies I read, the more I realize that this is a topic of significant complexity. I suspect that in the talks I gave five years ago, my descriptions of young adults were simpler and more all-embracing and, for that reason, they may have been easier for people to digest. And this is true, I think, of much of what we read on this topic. One sometimes reads blanket descriptions of young adults, or millennials, or the post-Boomer generation, that sum up things very neatly in a list of characteristics. I think that we have a tendency to want to find the comprehensive formula for understanding and relating to young adults: “This is what they are like.” But we need to remember that young adults -- like middle-aged and older adults -- are complex and often quite divergent in their views about most things, including faith, spirituality and the church. More careful researchers take note of this. It may be that the population of young adult Catholics that we are most likely to see (men and women who are active in the life of the church and those considering a vocation to consecrated life) is a bit more homogenous than the overall population of young adult Catholics. But even here, for example with the more than three hundred men and women who have participated in Catholics on Call conferences, there is a significant degree of complexity and diversity. I believe that it is important to acknowledge this diversity at the outset, especially as I try to summarize some of the findings about young adult Catholics and the church.

Young Adults in Our Society

Before delving into the specifics of young adult Catholics and their relationship to the church, I think it is important to say something about the larger context of young adult life in U.S. society today. Studies of young adults reveal that their social situation is distinct from that of young adults thirty or forty years ago. The important work of the sociologists Robert Wuthnow, of Princeton University, and Christian Smith, from the University of Notre Dame, makes this clear.[1] All commentators emphasize that there is a longer period of vocational and career exploration for most young adults today. This is due to a number of factors, including the postponement of marriage and parenting for most men and women. Men and women get married 4-5 years later (on average) today than they did in the 1960’s. Other factors in this longer period of exploration include: the lengthening of education for many people, with greater numbers of people attending graduate school; the more precarious and unpredictable economic situation, with frequent job changes among younger adults and the need for ongoing training and education; and the willingness of parents to extend financial and other forms of support to their children in their twenties and even their thirties. Indeed some observers comment about increased financial pressures on young adults today. Statistics indicate that they are experiencing lower wage growth and greater inequality than young adults a generation ago. And, for young adults who are married or living together, the preponderance of dual-income households seems to impose significant pressures of time and energy. All of this can mean that they have less time to devote to involvement in religious congregations.

Psychologists and sociologists are employing the phrase “emerging adulthood” to describe this period of life – a term coined a few years ago by the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett.[2] You may have read the article in the August 22 issue of the New York Times magazine about emerging adults, which quotes Arnett as arguing that this period of life now constitutes a distinct life stage. The term describes young people who, for the most part, have moved beyond the stage of adolescence but have not yet reached full adulthood. They do not feel “settled” in their vocations or their sense of themselves. Some young adult ministers with whom I have spoken do not like this term. They think that it is patronizing to men and women in their twenties and thirties, preferring to call them “adults” and to include them, for example, in the adult education components of parish ministry. I understand their concerns, but I would tend to agree with Christian Smith, who does make use of Arnett’s term “emerging adults.” Smith thinks that this period of life constitutes a distinct stage, one that is not simply an extension of teenage life nor the beginning settled adulthood. It is a more-or-less “in-between” time that can last up to twelve years or more.[3] The findings of research scholars are consonant with my own experience of young adult discerners. There is a sense of “emerging” that is characteristic of men and women in this age group. As Smith puts it, for men and women in this stage of life, “settling down is for later.”[4]

This stage of life is marked by significant growth and opportunity. A lot is going on here, internally and externally. It is a time of unparalleled freedom in which young people are able to explore numerous options in their lives. There is optimism about all the possibilities – seemingly unlimited possibilities for many. There is also the lingering temptation to keep postponing commitment, fueled in part by the fear of closing off other possibilities if one makes a commitment to something or someone definite. “What happens if I make this choice and something better or more fulfilling comes along?” During these years, the exploration of personal identity that began in adolescence is deepened. There is intense questioning that is going on: Who am I? What kind of person do I want to become? What form of work will best utilize my gifts and lead to personal fulfillment? To whom or to what do I want to give myself?

These are obviously critical questions with which we wrestle all our lives, for sure. But they seem to be of particular salience during the period from college into late twenties and early thirties. For that reason, even though emerging adulthood is a time of opportunity and hope, it also poses daunting challenges. And those of us who are concerned about assisting young adults in their vocational discernment and inviting them to consider consecrated life need to be in touch with the challenges they face. This period of life is replete with transitions: transitions from high school into college; from college into the workforce or graduate school; from job to job and apartment to apartment; for some from single life into marriage or another vocation. While this constant movement can be exciting in some respects, it can also leave people feeling very unsettled. It can be stressful and feel very lonely at times. It is often accompanied by fears. Some researchers say they were surprised to discover the level of fear with which many young adults grapple. Some young adults speak of “quarter life crisis” – that experience of young adults in their middle or later twenties who are searching for direction in their lives and feel alone in the process. For many, the years after their college experience do not have the same structures of friendship and support that they found in their college or university community, and so they can feel quite lonely in their search. In my conversations with young adults, I have heard this feeling of loneliness expressed quite often.

One author articulates it in a way that I have heard a number of young adults speak in my conversations with them: there is just so much to figure out.[5] Recently, I spent an hour or so listening to a young woman in her mid-twenties who repeatedly emphasized this point: I have so much to figure out about my life. Young adults often feel overwhelmed by the momentous decisions that need to be made in their lives. And there are few supports in place in the church or the larger society to help them as they make these choices. Robert Wuthnow underlines this lacuna in After the Baby Boomers. He concludes that as a nation we need to think further about the kinds of support which young adults need, especially the kind of mentoring they need. Wuthnow observes, “We cannot hope to be a strong society if we invest resources in young people until they are eighteen or twenty and then turn them out to find their way entirely on their own.”[6] Wuthnow’s words may describe not only society in general but the church as well. This is something that we have thought about a great deal at Catholics on Call as we try to find ways to help young adults who come to us find mentoring and support in the places where they live.

Another dimension of this stage of life involves young adults renegotiating their relationships with their parents and other family members. Some people, including many parents, assume that young adults do not want their parents involved in their lives. Parents should just keep their distance while young adults figure out how to stand on their own two feet. It is certainly true that young adults need and want the space to become more independent and self-reliant, but studies show that most young adults want to be engaged with their parents as they transition to adulthood. They value their relationship with their parents and want it to endure and grow, even amidst the changes it involves. They want a renegotiated relationship with their parents. Research also indicates that the faith and religious practice of parents has a lasting impact on that of emerging adults. Smith argues that the influence of parents trumps that of peers with regard to religious practice.[7]

The extended duration of emerging adulthood is influencing involvement in faith communities. Active involvement in religious congregations tends to increase with marriage and parenting, when young men and women become more settled and concerned about raising children. So a longer stage of single life and transition to settled adulthood means that participation in communities of faith declines overall. And in general, researchers like Wuthnow, Smith and those who are part of the Pew Forum on Religion and Society point out that the attitude of young adults from all religious backgrounds is one of indifference toward religion and spirituality. Wuthnow puts it simply when he concludes that today young adults are less likely to participate in religious services than they were a generation ago.[8] The results of a survey of young adult Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year indicated that they are less affiliated with faith traditions than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young.[9] Faith and religious practice are not prominent on the radar screens of the majority of young adults in our society.

One often hears descriptions of young adults as “spiritual but not religious.” This is a popular designation that means different things to different people. More generally, it seems to indicate an interior quest for the transcendent and for a depth of meaning in life without external practice of any particular faith or affiliation with any particular religious community. And it is true that a greater percentage of young adults describe themselves this way than in the past. It is an accurate descriptor for a minority component of the emerging adult population. But careful researchers urge caution here. The widespread assumption that many young adults are spiritual but not religious does not seem to hold up in the face of the evidence. Sometimes the way in which questions are asked on surveys leaves only one option for people: if they do not affiliate with any religious tradition, they are given the choice of designating themselves either as “atheistic/agnostic” or as “spiritual.” But “spiritual” can mean just about anything one wants it to mean. In his work on young people 18 to 23, for example, Christian Smith found that there is a small group of emerging adults that he describes as “spiritually open.” But he discovered that most emerging adults who are serious about a spiritual quest are also actively involved in the practice of their faith. He writes, “The emerging adults who do sustain strong subjective religion in their lives, it turns out, are those who also maintain strong external expressions of faith, including religious service attendance.”[10] So “spiritual but not religious” can be a misleading descriptor, at least if it is applied to the majority of the young adult population.

Young Adult Catholics and the Practice of the Faith

Having looked at the broader picture of young adults and U.S. society, let us examine more specifically the attitudes of young adult Catholics toward faith and church. I suspect that all of us here today are painfully aware of the fact that the Catholic Church has been wrestling with the challenge of how to reach out more effectively to young adults in recent years. In a 2003 poll of U.S. Catholics of all ages, more than half said that low levels of participation by young adults is a serious problem for the Church. They listed this concern as one of the three most serious problems faced by the U.S. Catholic Church, along with the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the decline in vocations to religious life and the priesthood.[11] What is going on with young adult Catholics these days?

Most young adult Catholics, even those who participate in the life of the Church infrequently, like being Catholic and readily identify themselves as such. Statistics vary, but usually one finds that about 10% of those raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. A significant number of those who have “left” have joined evangelical Christian churches. But the great majority of young adults who were raised Catholic still think of themselves as Catholic. Some observers say that on this score Catholics are more like Jews than Protestants in that we seem to have an “identity glue” that keeps people connected with their Catholic identity. There appears to be a Catholic sensibility that endures with most young adults even when their practice of the faith is sporadic. Some thinkers identify this sensibility with the sacramental imagination that is characteristic of Catholic belief and practice. There is a sensitivity to the disclosure of God through the created, especially through other people, and an awareness of the power of symbol, that runs through the veins even of Catholics who are not regular churchgoers.

When they are surveyed about faith and spirituality, most young adult Catholics readily espouse affirmation of certain core beliefs, including belief in the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus, affirmation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, devotion to Mary as the mother of God, and the obligation to show active concern for the poor. Many young adults are inspired by Catholic social teaching, affirming that this is the dimension of church doctrine with which they most closely identify. Some researchers suggest, however, that actual knowledge of this tradition of Catholic social teaching is minimal among young adults (as it is among most Catholics). A significant percentage of young adults struggle with other dimensions of official Catholic doctrine, especially teaching about sexual morality, the role of women in the Church, and ecclesial requirements for marriage.

Like their peers from other religious traditions, young adult Catholics are comfortable constructing a Catholic identity on their own terms. Some authors use the term “tinkering” (bricolage) to describe this tendency – piecing together something from whatever resources are available. And so “spiritual tinkering” involves putting together ideas about spirituality from many different sources, even from movies, television shows, and conversations with friends.[12] It seems to me that the recent popular movie, “Eat, Pray, Love,” based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, is a story about spiritual tinkering. In a consumer culture that prizes unlimited choice in everything from smart phones to types of coffee, young adult Catholics are at home selecting elements within Catholic teaching and practice that they wish to comprise their own identity. In a study of young adult Catholics, the late Dean Hoge and his colleagues said this: “For many young adults, Catholicism is not so much a binding community of discipleship as a cultural tool kit of symbolic/spiritual wares from which it is possible to construct a personal religious identity.”[13] Now, it is true that Catholics have always approached their faith with a certain amount of selectivity. Selective adherence is not something new with young adult Catholics. But it appears that this selectivity is more pronounced today than in the past.

The practice of the faith among Catholic young adults varies widely. This is where the diversity and complexity of the young adult Catholic population becomes evident. Studies usually show that between 15 and 25% of young adult Catholics participate in the Eucharist on a weekly basis. Those on the younger side of this age cohort participate less frequently than those in their later twenties and early thirties. When they are compared with young adults of other Christian denominations, Catholics fall at the lower end of the spectrum of religious participation. Many young adults say that they find it difficult to feel at home in typical Catholic parishes. Often they do not have many friends in the parish community and so feel alone and isolated. There are parishes that “specialize” in outreach to young adults, like Old Saint Pat’s and Saint Clement’s in Chicago, but the majority of parishes are lacking in such outreach. When that is the case it is very easy for young adults to get lost or simply to drift away.

In most dimensions of faith practice, Catholic young adults manifest significantly less involvement in their faith than evangelical Protestants. This is exactly the opposite of what is the case with older adults. Older Catholics manifest greater involvement in their faith than evangelical Protestant older adults. But on the younger side, Catholics tend to fall at the lower ends of the spectrum of affiliation and involvement.[14] With regard to young adult Catholics (and young adults from other religious traditions in the U.S.), researchers usually speak of a core of about 15% who are vitally committed to the practice of their faith. Christian Smith highlights the significance of this minority of young adults who embrace a strong religious faith. These are the younger men and women who tend to be most actively involved in campus ministry programs, parish and diocesan young adult groups, and programs like Catholics on Call. These are the folks who are most likely to be considering a vocation to consecrated life. Smith says, “But, it is worth noting, these more seriously committed young adults do exist, and not simply as a struggling remnant. More than a few do buck the trends of religious decline and indifference.”[15]

Young adult Catholics who are active in the life of the Church express a desire for a deeper knowledge of the Catholic tradition. In their study of young adult Catholics and their interest in ministry, Dean Hoge and Marti Jewell concluded, “Whether self-identified as traditional or liberal, young adults want to know more about their faith.”[16] Catholics in their twenties and thirties tend to say that the religious education they received was long on process and short on content. Some young adult Catholics who are married complain that they do not know enough about their faith to explain it to their children. These sentiments are confirmed by researchers who investigate the knowledge of the faith that young adult Catholics actually have. In many cases, it reflects a minimal familiarity with the Catholic tradition. Jesuit theologian Thomas Rausch says, “My own sense after more than thirty years of teaching Catholic undergraduates is that most of them find it very difficult to give a coherent account of their faith.”[17] Recently, I invited a small group of young adults connected with Catholics on Call to submit ideas that they think should be included in a talk on this topic that I have to give to a group of bishops in the near future. One of them wrote this: “Please remain a teaching church.” I was struck by that. She commented that she and other of her peers need and want to know more about their own faith tradition.

Some authors stress that one of the factors that is at work here is the loss of a Catholic subculture in this country. By that they mean a time when Catholics felt more distinct from those of other religious backgrounds and Catholic identity was closely formed around the local parish and other places of association. This was not true everywhere, of course, but it was the case in many places, especially in many larger cities. Shared practices like abstaining from meat on Fridays, participation in devotions like forty hours and rosary processions, involvement in sodalities and Catholic men’s clubs, CYO sports, etc., instilled an innate sense of being Catholic in a larger world. The Catholic worldview could be very narrow, but it did structure an identity. More people learned their faith by osmosis; it was just part of them. Then Catholics moved up the socioeconomic ladder and became more integrated into the mainstream of U.S. society, and this Catholic subculture disappeared, at least in most places. In the 2005 Hecker Lecture sponsored by the Paulists, ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz observed about Catholics under forty: “Their world is characterized not by the suffocating insularity and rigidity of immigrant Catholicism, but by the disorienting free fall of postmodern religious pluralism.”[18] Cathleen Kaveny, from the University of Notre Dame, says this: “. . . the coherent Catholic culture of the pre-Vatican II church had broken up by the time we came along. We do not have the Catholic-in-our-bones sensibilities that characterize both liberals and conservatives of earlier generations.”[19]

This means that what many middle-age and older Catholics learned by osmosis is not as readily familiar or accessible to younger Catholics. In some of our discussions at Catholics on Call conferences, young adults have remarked that people my age and older should not assume that a younger generation has been exposed to many of the practices and beliefs that we may take for granted. And many have not internalized the structures that older Catholics may have internalized, even “spiritual structures” like ways of praying. Some young adult Catholics who are most active in the Church today are strongly attracted to more traditional practices like Eucharistic adoration, the rosary and other forms of devotional prayer, and even the use of Latin in the liturgy. These inclinations were manifested in some of the feedback given by younger religious in the CARA study. This is not true of the majority of young adult Catholics, as is sometimes (falsely) reported. But it is true of a significant number of the more active and involved Catholic young adults. This is puzzling to some pastoral ministers, who wonder whether these inclinations represent “throwbacks” to practices of yesteryear. It seems, however, that rather than a throwback such interests and practices reflect a discovery – a discovery of aspects of our rich and diverse tradition with which they were previously unfamiliar and which they find helpful – at least for a time – in their relationship with God.[20]

I believe that these findings, which have been confirmed in my own experience of working with young adults in vocational discernment, can be correlated with the NRVC/CARA study that is the focal point of this conference. As we know, the study showed that a significant number of younger religious desire more structured support than do middle-aged and older religious. It makes some sense to me that the minority of emerging adult Catholics who are considering a vocation to consecrated life: are attracted to particular religious communities especially because of their community life and prayer life; tend to want to live in mid-sized or larger communities with their fellow religious and to engage in institutional ministries that are sponsored by their congregations; are more attracted to the wearing of a habit than middle-aged and older religious. The study reflects a desire for identifying symbols and structures of support among people who have been formed in an environment where those structures have not been present. I distinctly remember a discussion among the participants at one Catholics on Call young adult conferences, which followed a thoughtful presentation on consecrated life given by Sr. Dianne Bergant, CSA. Several in the room, not all of whom were traditionalist in their thinking, expressed this desire for external structures of support in order to be able to live in a religious community. They were communicating to us, explicitly and implicitly, that they had not internalized such structures in ways that older religious may have, and that the desire for more external support was something that emerged from their experience.

The focus on community manifested in this study intrigued me. It points to what I view as an element of tension in the literature about young adults. Many writers comment about the strong influence of American individualism on men and women in their twenties and thirties. Christian Smith highlights this culture of individualism and its impact on the ways in which young adults approach religion and spirituality. He says that American individualism leaves its youth to themselves. Smith speaks of “sovereign individuals lacking conviction or direction.”[21] At the same time, others like Richard Flory and Donald Miller argue that young adults are searching for communities of faith. Flory and Miller coined the term “expressive communalism” to describe this desire for a faith that is individual but which is expressed through worship and interaction in community and through service to the world with others.[22] At Catholics on Call, we have found that the men and women who are thinking about an ecclesial vocation are indeed searching for community, especially for the support of others in their vocational discernment. As the CARA study indicated, often they do not receive this support from friends and family members. After each conference, they unfailingly establish Facebook groups to facilitate ongoing communication with one another. So, while American individualism continues to be a pervasive influence on the religious tendencies of emerging adults, at least a certain percentage of them are craving vibrant communities of faith and communal expressions of their faith. This appears to be true among those studied by CARA, for whom the quality of community life was so influential in their vocational decision.

I believe that it is important for us “older” religious to attend to the fact that young adults speak of feeling disheartened by the polarization they perceive among middle-aged and older Catholics. This is listed as one of the challenges faced by younger religious in the CARA study. Timothy Muldoon speaks very forcefully about the negative effects on Catholic young adults of division and polemics among older Catholics. When young adult Catholics hear people my age and older labeling those with whom we disagree as “conservatives” or “liberals,” “pre-Vatican II” or “radicals”, “orthodox” or “dissenters,” many of them feel that such categories do not apply to them, as least completely. And they find the use of this political rhetoric in the church to be very offputting. For example, some young adults who are strongly committed to the Church’s social justice mission are also attracted to some of the more traditional practices of prayer and devotion that I have mentioned above. Young adult Catholics do not always fit neatly in the ideological categories that are familiar to Catholics of the “baby boomer” generation. Muldoon has strong words about this. He argues that the most pronounced shortcoming of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is “the entrenchment of attitudes formed in the wake of Vatican II that have poisoned the waters of the Church today.”[23] He thinks that many younger Catholics “have become disillusioned by the fact that so much energy is spent trying to vilify the perceived enemy, rather than building a community founded in love seeking justice.”[24] Perhaps Muldoon’s words are a bit too forceful, but he and others do raise our awareness about the lack of context among many younger Catholics for understanding the debates that are important to older Catholics.

In many religious communities, whether traditional or progressive, such rhetoric is a regular staple of community life and conversation. And I suppose that there is something rather normal about that. We look for ways of describing those with whom we more readily agree and those who see things differently than we do. We think and speak in categories. But this conversation can become very pointed in ways that tend to set up camps in the church. It is a rhetoric that can easily dismiss others who hold views different from our own without really understanding their positions or seeking insight into the concerns and aspirations that motivate them. This is where many active young adult Catholics register their protest – explicitly or silently – and feel disconnected from the older generation of Catholics, including those whom they may be visiting or living with in religious community.

Our Experience at Catholics on Call

Catholics on Call attracts a subset of active young adult Catholics, that is, men and women who are considering a vocation to consecrated life, ministerial priesthood, or lay ecclesial ministry. In many ways, we are privileged to interact with the “cream of the crop.” Still, these are normal young adult Catholics with many of the same concerns and struggles of their peers. Most are actively involved in their campus ministry or parish communities. Many have engaged in a very impressive array of service activities, from working at the local soup kitchen to spending a year or more of volunteer service in places like Latin America and Africa. Each spring the associate director (Birgit Oberhofer) and I have been privileged to read the applications of 75 to 100 young men and women who applied to come to one of our summer conferences. In these applications they recount their past involvement in ministry and retreats, and they write a personal essay telling us about themselves and their reasons for applying to the conference. I have discovered that perusing these applications is like doing spiritual reading. It is truly inspiring to learn of the hopes and aspirations of these young men and women and to see what they have already done in their relatively short lives.  

On the evaluation forms that these young adults complete at the end of our conferences, they unfailingly say that one of the most important aspects of the experience is spending time with other peers who have similar convictions and are asking similar questions about their lives. They tell us that they are reticent about sharing their interest in consecrated life, priesthood or lay ministry with their friends and even with their family members. Often they are made to feel “weird” by others for thinking about a life of service in the church. So they value the support they experience from their peers and from the mentors who guide the table groups at the conferences. One of the challenges that we face is how to provide ongoing support (through the internet and other means) to these men and women in their vocational discernment.

In our reflection over the years at Catholics on Call, we have highlighted certain recommendations for those concerned about ecclesial vocations. Since we want to take time to listen to our panel members, I will conclude simply by enumerating a few of these recommendations:

  • Listen closely to young adults to discover the values and concerns that drive them. This engagement should include the willingness to discuss honestly the “disconnect” issues with which young adult Catholics often struggle, for example, the role of women in the church; understanding and integrating the church’s teaching on sexual morality; ecclesial requirements for marriage; the effects of clergy sexual abuse and financial scandals.
  • Focus on assisting young adults with their vocational discernment in a pressure-free environment. Walk with them and give them space to discern.
  • Contextualize the invitation to ecclesial vocations (including consecrated life) within the framework of a communion of vocations within the church.
  • Do not assume that young adults are familiar with Catholic teachings and practices, for example, ways of praying. Help them to befriend the tradition in a non-ideological way.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to connect young adults who are considering a church vocation with peers who have similar aspirations.
  • Remember the importance of providing good mentors (spiritual directors and others) for young adults – during the process of vocational discernment and within the context of formation for religious life. All of the research speaks about the vital importance of solid mentoring.
  • Offer print and online information about religious communities that has a clear Catholic focus and identifies the specific mission of the community in a compelling way.
  • Provide solid, well-balanced input on human sexuality and celibate chastity. Avoid both “spiritualizing” and “pop-psychologizing.”
  • Middle-aged and older religious need to be open to the perspectives of a new generation of younger people who are exploring and trying to integrate various elements of the Catholic tradition.
  • Religious communities would do well to reflect upon the structures of common life, communal prayer, and shared commitment to ministry that they offer to aspirants and new members.

[1] See Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007); Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). See also Robert Schreiter, “The Challenge of Christian Discipleship in North American Culture,” in Robin Ryan, ed. Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 26-43.

[2] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Emerging Adults: The Winding Road from Late Teens Through the Twenties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Smith, Souls in Transition, 280.

[4] Ibid., 56.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 232.

[7] Smith, Souls in Transition, 285.

[8] Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 214.

[9] Pew Forum on Religion and Society, “Religion Among the Millennials,” accessed at

[10] Smith, Souls in Transition, 252.

[11] William D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, and Mary L. Gautier, American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 69, 77-78.

[12] “Thirteen Trends and Forces Affecting the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World,” Faith Formation 2020 (Lifelong Faith Associates, 2009), 4.

[13]  Dean Hoge, William Dinges, and Juan Gonzalez, Jr., Young Adult Catholics: Religion in a Culture of Choice (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 226.

[14] Smith, Souls in Transition, 91.

[15] Ibid., 283.

[16] Dean R. Hoge and Marti R. Jewell, Young Adult Catholics and Their Future in Ministry: Interim Report on the 2007 Survey of the Next Generation of Leaders (National Association for Lay Ministry, 2007), 27. Accessed at A more recent account of this study can be found in Dean R. Hoge and Marti R. Jewell, The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010).

[17] Thomas Rausch, SJ, Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 17.

[18] Richard Gaillardetz, “Apologetics, Evangelization and Ecumenism Today,” Origins 35 (2005): 10.

[19] Cathleen Kaveny,  “Young Catholics: When Labels Don’t Fit,” Commonweal 131, 20 (2004): 19.

[20] See Timothy Muldoon, Seeds of Hope: Young Adults and the Catholic Church in the United States (NY: Paulist Press, 2008), 132.

[21] Smith, Souls in Transition, 292.

[22] Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 185-193.

[23] Muldoon, Seeds of Hope, 66.

[24] Ibid.

Author information Robin Ryan, C.P.

Robin Ryan is a Passionist priest and theologian who serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Catholic Theological Union. He received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Catholic University of America. He is the author of numerous articles and recordings on theological and spiritual topics. He edited and contributed to the book Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2010). He is the author of God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages (Paulist Press, 2011). He is the author of the forthcoming book Jesus and Salvation (Liturgical Press). He is also a contributor to and English-language editor of the forthcoming Diccionario de la Pasión (Madrid, San Pablo) and the founding director of Catholics on Call.

© Copyright 2019 Catholic Theological Union. All rights reserved.
Site design and development by Symmetrical Design.