If you know any young adults in their late teens or early 20’s, or if you have young adult children yourself, you may be shocked by what they consider cool these days. I am not referring to anything scandalous, but rather to their appreciation for retro popular culture. The music of the 1970’s and 80’s is hip again (if you hated it then, watch out, because it’s back). If you examine the clothing on some young people, you might think that Richard Nixon was in office. Not too long ago, swing dancing and drinking martinis were all the rave. Some young adults feel unsatisfied by what modern pop culture offers them, so they look to the past to fill the lacuna. Ironically, when enough of them start doing this, the past is transformed into modern pop culturebut with a somewhat different spin.
I was reflecting recently on the retro movement in popular culture, and it struck me that the philosophy behind it provides a way of thinking about how Catholicism could evolve. Much has been written about Generation X, the Millenial Generation and their roles (or lack thereof) in the Catholic Church of the future. From my work over the past few years with college students, and from my own reflections as a 31-year-old Catholic and a Jesuit, I believe that young adult Catholics have much to offer the church, if the church is willing to listen. It is important that people of different generations speak to one another, or everyone loses out.
Living in the Past?
Let me begin with a distinction. While 70’s and 80’s pop culture may be hip now, there is no desire on the part of young adults to relive these decades. For one thing, many of them had barely been born, so there is no collective memory about these decades. Second, there were aspects of the 70’s and 80’s that are definitely not worth reliving. The Vietnam War, fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the Iran-Contra affair and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America are just a smattering of the problems faced in these two decades. To its credit, the retro movement in pop culture attempts to reclaim what is perceived as beautiful from the past while leaving the problems behind. It also puts what is reclaimed into a modern context, which necessarily means it will look different.
In a recent article (Beige Catholicism, Commonweal, 11/9/01), the Rev. Andrew Greeley laments the loss of many of the ancient Catholic devotions and sacramentals. Father Greeley writes that the abandonment of many practices since Vatican II has been to our detriment, because these things give Catholics a unique identity. Besides, many are quite beautiful. Father Greeley mentions the rosary, religious statues and chant as examples of the practices Catholics of the past used to reach out to the divine. These both appeal to the senses and can augment our tentative human awareness of God’s presence. Returning to these practices, he says, does not imply membership in the Society of Pius X or rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, but I also believe that it is important to return to some of these practices if the church wants to appeal to the younger generations.
One problem with these ancient customs is that many members of pre-Vatican II generations have attached to them their memories of an overly clerical and rigid church. Once the council initiated reforms, many people who experienced the pre-1962 church wanted nothing to do with that kind of church again. Anything that even hinted of what used to be was discarded. This response was probably appropriate for the time. Many people felt hurt by the church, and they were rightfully angry. But those of us who were born after Vatican II and know only a reformed church have a different perspective. I do not believe that the majority of young Catholics want to return to the church of the 1950’s. I do think, however, that there are beautiful and important elements of the Catholic tradition that could be resurrected by younger generations of Catholics, but with a new flavor. I am suggesting that the post-Vatican II generations could offer the church a retro-Catholicism.
Some may argue that the retro approach to Catholicism will serve only to strengthen reactionary Catholicism. As soon as young Catholics in the 21st century start having Benediction again, can the Latin Mass be far behind? I find this fear unwarranted. The culture of young adult Catholics is very different from the culture of pre-Vatican II Catholics. When one culture adopts some of the practices of another, changes are certain to occur. Today’s young Catholics are approaching their religion with a different set of values and perspectives than past generations. First, if young Catholics wish to reclaim aspects of the religious tradition in which they share, it will be on their own initiative and terms. This is vastly different from their parents and grandparents, who had a tradition thrust upon them without anyone asking if they wanted it or not.
Second, post-Vatican II generations are heavily involved with social justice movements, although the majority might not say their activism is directly tied to their faith life. This leaves young Catholics in want of some meaning to associate with their work for justice. Such a desire for meaning can lead young Catholics to the church, if they see that traditional church practices are relevant to their life projects. Allowing young Catholics to adopt a devotion and provide it with a modern interpretation could preserve the practice and make it relevant to the current times. One example of such a retro-Catholic practice would be the way the Stations of the Cross are now prayed in some places during Holy Week. Replacing the traditional plaques or statues neatly displayed in churches are alternative stations, such as the site of a drive-by shooting, a battered women’s shelter or the local AIDS hospice. Many inner cities are hosts to hundreds of worshipers who progress from one sight of human suffering to the next. These are symbols of the earthly struggle of Christ today, and young Catholics can more easily identify with such a devotion in its updated form. More important, if they are helping plan these devotions, they are more likely to participate and spread the word.
Teach Your Children Well
Of course, if we dip into Catholicism’s past, we need to do so with prudence, lest we repeat old mistakes. This is why educating young Catholics about their faith is so crucial. For the most part, Catholic catechesis has been sub-par since Vatican II. A friend of mine wryly commented that the religion classes for our generation, even in Catholic schools, consisted of, Jesus loves you; now draw a rainbow. An informal poll of the essayists participating in Commonweal’s Young Catholic Writers contest revealed that young Catholics (in this case, ages 18-27), whether they label themselves conservative or liberal, feel that they were not educated well about their faith. Young Catholics are curious about their faith. They see their Jewish and Muslim peers have no shortage of rituals, which serve to give an identity to these groups. How can 21-year-olds be expected to embrace their Catholicism as adults if they have no way of distinguishing themselves as part of a unique spiritual community? In that case, their only choice is between fundamentalism, which provides a unique identity with attractive black-and-white answers to their legitimate quandaries, and ditching the religion thing altogether for their own individual brand of spirituality.
I have conducted an informal experiment to gauge the interest of young people in learning more about Catholicism. I recently purchased a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism, by Robert O’Gorman and Mary Faulkner, and I left it out on my desk in the university ministry office. Without fail, every student who has walked into my office has picked up that book and thumbed through it with interest. They are amazed by what they do not know about Catholicism’s past. They ask why Catholics used to do certain rituals that seem bizarre to them, or why Catholics do not do other more appealing rituals now. Before this, whenever a student had a question about Catholicism it was always related to sex (usually some variation on Why does the church say I can’t have it until I’m married?). Just as many ministers have witnessed people expressing a growing hunger for spirituality, there is a corresponding growing hunger for knowledge about Catholicism.
Catholic education does not have to be a choice between rote memorization of catechism and quasi-spiritual mush. The previously mentioned Idiot’s Guide is a wonderful example of reclaiming an important facet of our tradition (the catechism) and placing it within a modern-day pop culture vehicle. Theology-on-Tap programs, sprouting up all over the United States, are another way that knowledge about the church can be passed along without turning people off. In fact, many people will embrace a theological discussion with gusto after their third beer! With some creativity and hard work, ministers, in conjunction with young Catholics, could take the reins and help formulate more venues for integrating traditional Catholicism into current popular culture. But to do this will require that dioceses, campus ministry programs and church leaders make it a priority.
It is both an exciting and anxious time to be a young Catholic. Many of us have seen peers leaving the church, and we are left to face the question, Why do I stay? I posit another question for post-Vatican II generations to consider: how can I participate in forming the church of the future?
I have laid out one idea that tries to merge a unique perspective garnered from our modern popular culture with the tradition. Ready-made Catholicism will not be handed to us as it was to our parents and grandparents. It is the responsibility of us in the post-Vatican II generations to offer our experience, our hope and especially our creativity as we try to figure out how to live as young Catholics in the 21st century.