Staying Catholic at Twenty-Something

Young adult Catholics are legion. Statistical surveys indicate as much. Yet when I step over the threshold of my parish church, I see very few of my peers. This always disheartens me. Where have they gone? Why aren’t they here? Maybe I should fault my father for urging me to stay Catholic, with or without my peers. A circa-Vatican II seminary dropout, my father tirelessly championed such vagaries as God’s unconditional love and an informed conscience. He is the one who told me that God is all-powerful, loving and good, that God loves us and wants us to serve others and to be our best selves. Instead of a crucifix on my bedroom wall, Dad hung a picture of Jesus with children on his lap. With that image fixed in my brain, it didn’t seem all that onerous to go to Mass every week.

And the church itself did a pretty good job of appealing to my sense of loyalty. Growing up Catholic seemed to set me apart from the culture at large. It felt like belonging to an exclusive club whose members could distinguish what was popular from what was right. As a teenager, eager to express this self-assured righteousness, I got my family to recycle. I wrote letters to the editor begging for a nuclear freeze. I handed out bumper stickers for a Catholic senatorial candidate in the town parade.


It seemed only natural, after a time, to turn my scrutiny back on the very institution that fostered it. Many of my Catholic peers did that as well. As I began to question the church, I drew up a short list of disagreements. At first, it didn’t especially faze me. So what if the church and I differed on, say, women’s ordination? I knew the church was slow to change—stubbornly resistant to the latest fads. But my father always encouraged lavish tolerance for Catholics with whom I differed, particularly those wearing miters.

So when Call to Action members in Nebraska were threatened with excommunication for promoting women’s ordination, I was stunned. Did the church really want my assent on teachings with which I disagreed? Was I supposed to keep dissident views to myself? Wasn’t grappling with those issues part of informing my conscience? And if we did not see eye to eye, would the church actually ask me to leave?

Ever since then, I have doubted my ability to be true to myself as well as to the church. I am not altogether sure what it means to be either—much less what it means to be both. But the idea that these two goals should be at odds is more than a little demoralizing. Again and again, I see my peers choosing personal authenticity over church affiliation. I know some young adults who fear that self-identifying as Catholic would advertise the acceptance of positions that they vehemently reject. “I don’t want to be thought of as anti-gay or anti-woman, because I’m not,” says one. “By associating myself with the church, what should people believe about me but that I am a faithful follower of its laws?” In some sense, this tendency to disassociate reveals a deeply moral instinct. Nevertheless, it has won my generation our slacker reputation.

But then, here I am, staying Catholic. Left behind. Oh, sure, I’ve thought about leaving. My own brother, raised every bit as Catholic as I, yet finally intolerant of the church’s intolerance, embraced an alternative spirituality. Now he uses words like karma and energy. Sometimes I am tempted to join him. Why not? Why not take refuge in cultural tolerance and moral subjectivity, in the supposed ennui and cynicism of my generation? How hard could it be? I wonder. I already do my Christmas shopping online. I even switched to soy. And so, fed up, at the end of my rope, I skip Mass one week.

I have never left for good, though. Sometimes I’m not altogether sure why I stay Catholic—why I don’t at least take advantage of that pre-childbearing hiatus we seem to be allowed. But I stay. Maybe I remain out of pure stubbornness. Or perhaps I am plagued by some residual belief that God will like me better if I am Catholic.

But I don’t think that’s it, because when I discuss the church with my peers, I find myself showing patient fidelity. I feel sad for those who have not found a way to stay.

In my quieter moments, I think there is ample reason to be Catholic. My peers and I pulse with the conviction that there is meaning in relationships. It is one of the few things we believe in absolutely. The world may be harsh and indecipherable, but there is meaning in human connection even if that connection is not permanent. (We hope, often against our own experience, that it is.)

We long for intimacy. And although the church can be an inconstant lover, nevertheless being Catholic ties me to a community whose history and experience surpass my own. Over the long haul, fidelity to that community, even as it changes, reminds me that the world is larger than me. My decisions and actions affect other people. Gathering regularly in a place where the hopes and habits and needs of those people are fused together safeguards me from unchecked individualism. It grounds me.

Being Catholic shapes and informs every aspect of my life. It helps me envision a world that is better than this one (some would call it the kingdom of God) and to take an active part in bringing it about. Knowing that we are not yet there incites me to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Knowing that we all belong to God spurs me to treat others with compassion and honor. Knowing that God has put creation in our charge inspires me to defend it. Being Catholic reminds me that we are here to do what we can, the best way we know how.

Finally, being Catholic reassures me that, in the end, the Spirit will out—even if I cannot see how. I learned this from a 50-something sister. She was an angry woman, enraged at the church. But when I asked her why she stayed, she smiled. Her eyes flashed mischievously. “Because the Spirit is stronger than all this crap,” she said. It is an exercise in humility for me to believe that. Trusting that the Spirit is with us as a church means that I do not have all the answers. How could I? I am every bit as hypocritical, as arrogant and as shortsighted as I sometimes think the church is. I stay partly because I need to be humbled. I need to remember that neither of us has been our best self. We have at least that much in common.

Being Catholic at twenty-something is, well, lonely. I don’t have much company these days. Sometimes showing up at Mass feels more like surrender than triumph. Sometimes it feels useless. Sometimes the mental acrobatics of reconciling what the church is with what I wish it were exhausts me. My cynical inner voice wonders every week if it is worth the effort. In the crucible of my isolation, sometimes that voice is the only thing I can hear.

And then, just when I think I’m desperate enough to leave, I realize that there is no place I’d rather be. Sitting next to an elderly man, who rocks himself and sighs through the consecration, brings tears to my eyes. Hearing the Gospel inflames my heart with sorrow for my faults. Singing the Litany of the Saints makes me feel encircled by faithful people who have gone before me. These are the times when I can take the long view.

If I were to leave the church, I ask myself, what would I be leaving it for? Something less imperfect? It’s a tempting thought. Exhilarating, even. Just a few weeks ago I sat through a homily feeling so overwhelmed by my own disappointment that I could hardly breathe. I thought wistfully about mainline Protestantism. My generation has already dealt with more than our share of imperfection. We come from wildly dysfunctional families. We spent our childhood in a world that seemed to teeter on the brink of annihilation. Frankly, we’re a little sick of it. We want our church—for the love of God, at least our church—to be different.

But it isn’t. The truth is, imperfection is the only game in town. We are a long way from the happy ending when the church is just, prophetic and vital to all of us. And that hurts. Yet despite our imperfections, we are muddling through. In the face of dizzying change and disagreement, we are trying to figure out what it means to be a church together. Negotiating a balance is sometimes accompanied by spectacular struggle. But at least it’s a sign of our effort.

In the end, I don’t think there is any authentic escape from our balancing act. I even think it’s a healthy exercise. It reminds me that everything is part of a whole. Even my anger dwells in a context of commitment, of loyalty, of trust. I do love the church. If I didn’t, it would not have the power to disappoint me.

I once asked a Catholic peer—one of the few remaining—why neither of us had jumped ship yet. With all this grief, I demanded, why do we stay? He looked at me tolerantly. And although I pose the question to him once or twice a year, he did not even roll his eyes.

Because we are Catholic, he answered simply.

It’s the best reason I’ve heard so far.

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11 years 10 months ago
I especially enjoyed Karla Manternach’s article “Staying Catholic at Twenty-Something” (10/15). She is able to see some value in remaining with the institutional church.

I have worked with young people most of my life, and I find their honesty and idealism inspiring. I also find that many of them who believe the message of Jesus worth pursuing fail to see the church as a valuable resource for channeling that pursuit. Perhaps instead of encouraging them to get back to the traditional practices of the church, the church needs to recognize that Jesus has changed his address, as someone said. He has moved out of structures and buildings and hierarchy (if he ever was there) and is to be found among the poor and needy. That is where many young people find him.

It seems that today it is not so much a matter of meeting Jesus first in church and then moving out to serve him among the needy; it is rather the other way around: our meeting of Jesus in the poor brings us to our church. Then perhaps we can work to transform our church into the people of God.

11 years 10 months ago
I enjoyed Karla Manternach’s commentary, “Staying Catholic at Twenty-Something,” (10/15) very much. She gave me many new insights into the younger generation’s relationship with the church, faith and religion. It doesn’t get much easier, though, as one advances into the older generations. For me faith and religious practice is a process that never ends.

The thing I have worked on and continue to work on is my parish faith community. Weekly Mass is not an obligation so much as a need. It is comforting to be with fellow travelers, even those who disagree with me on issues. We have the usual spectrum of conservative-liberal in our faith community. As the sister quoted by Ms. Manternach said, “The Spirit is stronger than all this crap.” And, as James Joyce said, “Here comes everybody.”

11 years 10 months ago
I was very disheartened to read Karla Manternach’s Faith in Focus article (10/15) “Staying Catholic at Twenty-Something.” At first I connected 100 percent with her opening. I, too, am a twenty-something Catholic. I, too, look around me in church and do not see many peers. I, too, grew up in a family that stressed God’s unconditional love and genuine hospitality. I, too, have struggled to understand and find my place in the church’s difficult teachings. But unlike Karla, I have found that the church is a definitive, revolutionary and direly needed voice in my life and in today’s culture. There are a number of points in the article that particularly distress me.

In her essay Ms. Manternach laments, “We want our church—for the love of God, at least our church—to be different.” Our church presents an alternative vision when it proclaims the primacy of life over all else, proclaims the unique dignity of women, calls us to community and tithing and speaks up for workers’ rights in the increasingly one-sided world economy. Our church’s teachings are deep and incredibly relevant for the difficult issues of 2001. They are not intolerant or stagnant.

I see this article as an alarm that I hope will awaken two parties. One is the group of my peers. I hope they will dedicate themselves to digging beyond the superficial image of our church’s teachings and embracing the beautiful foundations upon which those teachings are built. The second party includes our priests and church leaders. I hope they will become better educators about the depth and truth of our faith. It is a faith that speaks to the spiritual and social conditions of despair that haunt both this culture and this generation. Catholicism is a faith that demands diligent education. We must all dedicate ourselves to this.

Jacob Kelly
11 years 5 months ago
Thank you so much for the publishing of Karla Manternach’s Faith in Focus article (10/15) “Staying Catholic at Twenty-Something.” I understand many of the feelings she's encountered as a developing Catholic Christian. Being a twenty-something Catholic is indeed a lonely place, especially here in the South where our faith is so often criticized. There is a problem with the church, and I think it really truly needs to be dealt with. I believe genuine young Christian Catholics are a dying breed. The reason we're seeing so many "drop out" for a time before having children is that they're not interested in a genuine faith for the most part. They return because they want their children to have a moral compass, not a faith. Are there exceptions. Of course, and they are many. But, I think the modern Catholic Church needs to excite twenty-something Catholics for christ's work. More and more I see a desire amongst people my age to do good, not just hear it preached. We need to be in an active and faithful community with our peers. I too am just holding on, holding out faith for this wonderful and amazing church. I think what helps me hold on is the quote, "We must be the change we want to see". Keep the faith guys and gals!
10 years 11 months ago
I stay because I have not found a viable alternative. If I could find one I would leave today. The reasons I have for leaving are legion but the main one is the sexual abuse by priests and the church's unwillingness to help victims unless forced to do so by the courts.I have begged them to respond to me with some sort of remuneration for my sufering but they told me to "take a hike"I tried to explain that a monetary settlement would not heal me if they are ordered to comply by the court, but a settlement freely given from the heart would.(no matter the ammount)They say no. a non-acceptable response from " "Holy Mother the Church to her child


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