Why is it so hard for young Catholics to find the right parish?
In the fall of 2013, gentrification arrived in my working-class North Oakland neighborhood. The rent ticked up month after month. Then one day, the landlord called to notify us he was putting the house on the market. Because of an influx of highly paid tech workers into the Bay Area, the house listed for $600,000. This was out of range for this writer/academic and her musician spouse. So we packed up and moved 45 minutes away.
At first, I remained active at my old neighborhood parish. But between being a team leader for the parish’s adult Christian initiation program, going to Mass, work and the gym, and running errands, I was behind the wheel two or more hours a day, seven days a week. Burning that much gas was a thorn in the side of someone who worries about climate change, but my remote neighborhood has no public transit options. And a change in leadership at the parish also left me asking some hard questions about what all that commuting was for. A sense of disengagement began to creep through our community, and a push mandated by the diocese to focus on student ministry caused adults who were not students to feel left out. The 45-minute drive to church did not make things any easier.
So with discernment and talk with my spiritual director, I started church shopping. In an urban area, this should be easy—there are dozens of Catholic churches in the East Bay Area, and even more in San Francisco. I started at one within walking distance, figuring saving gas would assuage my guilty conscience. When I arrived for the Sunday morning Mass, nobody was at the front door greeting people, so I wandered around for five minutes looking for a bulletin or a hymnal. By the time I found both, some 40 people were in the pews. The choir was good, but the homily lasted 35 minutes (I confess that I timed it) and seemed to have no central message. When it came time for singing, I was the only person within several pews pitching in—and I do not have a good singing voice. Other than one or two families with children, I was the youngest person in attendance by a couple of decades. Passing the peace was cursory, there were no social justice activities listed in the bulletin, and the priest shook one or two hands outside before disappearing.
Perhaps, like many Catholics, I had been spoiled by thoughtful preaching, good music and beautiful liturgies. My non-negotiables seemed minimal: good preaching, decent music and social justice activities. Living in a multicultural area and teaching at a multicultural school, I would prefer a parish with some ethnic diversity and would really like it to be welcoming to my L.G.B.T. friends and my family. I am in my early 40s, and I would like to see someone my age occasionally. I also do not want to feel ostracized for being married to a non-Catholic or for not having children and therefore attending Mass alone. But even as I tried parish after parish, I was not finding those things in combination. Was I just asking for too much?
The Church Compromise
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that for every adult who is received into the church, six Catholics leave. How much does what we find when we arrive at a church have to do with our dissatisfaction? I put together a questionnaire that asked people under 50 what they were looking for in a church and what their church-shopping experiences have been like and distributed it to people on Twitter and Facebook.
The predominant feature found lacking by those who responded was good preaching. Tom says that he is so fatigued by “culture warrior” homilies that he has “given up on there actually being good preaching anywhere consistently.” One man replied that he wanted preaching that was “substantive and meaningful,” coupled with beautiful liturgy. “I guess I want what doesn’t exist,” he added. Justine said of preaching, “Who wants to be bored? Or worse, angry or offended?” Ashley prefers “intellectually stimulating homilies,” and Justin says that after years of mediocre preaching, he feels lucky to have found preaching from a theology professor and priest that is “theologically informed.” Christopher says he looks for “homilies that are thought-provoking but also provide complex theological themes.”
How people are received when they arrive at a church not only sets the tone but can also cause problems. Most people said they were not greeted at all—not even with a cursory hello. Those who went out of their way to introduce themselves to priests and get involved in parishes found that once this hurdle was surmounted, things sometimes got a bit better. Parents of young children also found that participating in family activities helped them to get networked. But single people, those married to non-Catholics and those without children all said that there was almost no outreach. “So many young adults have given up on religion,” said one man, “that churches just focus on the people who are already there.” Needless to say, that, too, can be alienating.
Justin, who describes himself as introverted, says he doesn’t like “being blitzed by the greeter ministry” but found that with time the priest reached out to him to get involved. But he was the exception among the people who replied. Most of the people I spoke to listed community as one of the things they most longed to find at a parish. Only a few had actually found it. Of these young adults, very few wanted specifically to be part of young adult activities, with one man saying most young adult activities feel like “forced awkward socializing,” and others describing them as “hokey” and “trite.” A space for “organic socialization,” if possible, would be preferable. They also on the whole preferred a multigenerational parish to one that specifically targets young adults.
When asked if they had eventually found a parish they loved, most people said no. Instead, they compromised. Of his closest church, one man says, “The liturgy is terrible, the homilies are worse, and there is little to no racial diversity. But I feel like there’s a possibility of fostering greater community in this parish simply because it is so close to my house and most of the parishioners are my neighbors.” Ashley says that she “grudgingly” attends her childhood parish but finds the young adult activities wanting: “[They] don’t offer any nourishment to me. They focus more on socializing—beer night and ball games (I don’t drink, and sports are boring)—and less on intellectual spiritual stimulation.” One man said that his parish “only makes sense for Catholics once they’re married and have kids to plug into the programs.” And another says he likes his parish, but it is “aging and shrinking and doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities for fellowship.”
Liturgy, too, can make it hard to find a parish one can really love. The tastes of those who responded to my survey range from the traditional (a few preferred the Latin Mass and organ music) to the contemporary, with every possible combination in between. But reverence and attention to theology came up again and again, from both Catholics who self-identified as progressive and those who self-identified as traditional. Yet many reported that perfunctory liturgies or disorganized ones had driven them to continue seeking a better parish. The “we’ve always done it this way” factor also comes into play here: those who tried to join liturgy or music committees and pitch in with suggestions were often rebuffed.
Searching for Community
Doing research for this essay and for my forthcoming book on the increasing number of religiously unaffiliated young adults, I found many people described themselves as “picky” and indicated that their pickiness might be why they had given up on finding a church. But pickiness may also mean that people are searching but do not feel welcomed or included by churches when they arrive. As one man put it, “Why devote time and energy to a community that can’t seem to find a way to make you feel as if you are valued and necessary?” And in a financially difficult time, when young adults often have to balance the demands of multiple jobs, the time spent at church means giving up time with family and friends. If that church experience is disappointing or alienating, the question arises: Why bother?
My spiritual director had an answer to my frustrated tales of bad homilies, cold and detached congregations and turgid music: Focus on the Eucharist. That, after all, is what Mass is for. Although this advice may help those with a disappointing church experience, it does not by itself create the sense of community that is so hard to find in our increasingly fragmented era. So I am still searching for a parish with a real sense of community, and it is hard work. Perhaps, like many people I spoke to, I will always be searching. But perhaps, as a group, we have a precedent. Jesus, after all, did not worship in the same place every week and his friends, like many Gen-Xers and millennials, were itinerant and just trying to make ends meet. But they occasionally found a place to gather. Finding it involved wandering, confusion and even fear. Who met them when they arrived, and what did that person offer them? Fellowship, safety, acceptance. Perhaps churches worried about the absence of younger adults would do well to offer them the same.