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.