Each year at Christmastime, the 35 or so of us who comprise my extended family gather at an old mansion of sorts on the Rhode Island coast to celebrate the season, spend time with one another, and as we grow a bit older, catch up on what we are doing with our lives. As many headed to bed and the rest finished the wine remaining in our glasses, discussion turned to religion. My cousin, a bright sophomore at a small liberal arts college, surprised her mother by seemingly losing her faith while attending a Catholic school. I tried to reassure my aunt by suggesting this is a healthy, and common, part of one’s faith formation. My aunt offered me a glimpse into her own beliefs, which seem tempered, open, evolving, and perhaps a bit unsure. In short, they seem very Catholic. I then listened to my cousin, who was simultaneously defensive and aggressive in asserting her distance from the Church and rejection of its teachings. She expressed some surprise herself at the quick 180 she experienced in only a few years; she had been heavily invested in her own confirmation process during high school, and now in college, she wants nothing to do with the Church. I listened attentively to her reasons, which include a stronger focus on reason and her rejection of what she sees as the reactionary and narrow views of some loud lay and ordained Catholics. In fact, she cited specifically the irony she saw in a candlelight vigil at her school’s chapel for bullied gay teens from an organization that she believes perpetuates bullying itself. Having gone through this period of Church rejection myself only a few years earlier (I was somewhat of an agnostic for a few months in college, then Episcopalian for a couple more in grad school), I understand her thoughts, ideas, frustrations, and feelings of “meh” toward the Church. Still, I listened respectfully, and I spent more time asking questions than offering answers.
Reflecting on this exchange over the next few days, I thought about the phenomenon of losing one’s faith in college, even at, or especially at, Catholic schools. It happened to nearly all my college friends, and now, much of my family. This doesn’t seem particularly troubling; an unexamined faith might not be much faith at all. And if one does reflect critically on Christianity, it can be baffling, mysterious, and perhaps sometimes even ridiculous. Though with experience and age, rejection often can soften into doubt. Can this doubt transform into belief? Of course, and for many it does. But for the Millennials, those born in the 80s and 90s, the odds don’t seem especially high. Childhood faith sustains us for a bit, but it cannot meet one’s increasingly complex challenges as they transition into adulthood. When and where does a needed adult faith form? The institutional Church is losing relevance and respectability among my generation, and society offers many other ideas and ideology for happiness and fulfillment, some sound and some scary. What are we missing if we estrange ourselves from the Church? How do we as Catholics effectively relay the gospel message? Are we using the right vocabulary to reach 20- and 30-somethings? When people leave the Church, do we invite them back in? If they accept our invitations, what do they find?
Over the next couple days, many of these younger people will attend Masses with their families out of a sense of tradition or familial obligation. What messages will they hear? Does the Christmas story speak to their reality? Can one homily a year, if that, begin to address these questions? There are no easy answers, and there are increasingly fewer and fewer people even asking the questions. But if we hope for a strong and relevant Church over the next couple decades, we have to find ways of addressing them.