New insights on young Catholics will benefit ministry

New insights on young Catholics will benefit ministry

By Craig Gould

THE LATEST WORK from Christian Smith, (Oxford University Press, 2014), explores the faith life of Catholics ages 18-23. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults, In, Out of, and Gone From the Church While his earlier books looked at young people in several faith traditions, this book narrows the focus to young Catholics. Smith's books are based on the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR).

Young Catholic America begins by placing the NSYR data into both the larger American context and into the context of the study itself, including explaining the methodology that Smith and his team used to obtain their data. After these introductory chapters, which include direct testimonies from some of the young adults interviewed by the team, the book presents the heart of its findings. Fluctuating between statistical data, explanations of data, and then subsequent conclusions, the chapters are organized from the more general to a more specific examination of young adults and their sociological reality.

Before looking at implications of this work for religious communities, a few notes of caution are in order. The first is that this book is descriptive, not prescriptive. It explains the current situation of young adults, to the best of its abilities, but does not necessarily predict what will happen in the next 10 to 15 years with this population or the young adults that follow them. While it seems fair to project out from the data the trends that have the possibility of continuing, it should not be assumed that the next generation of young adults will respond in the same way as this current group. As such religious communities should be always able and ready to respond in ways that are appropriate to the current situation.

Second, for the purposes of this study “young adults” were defined as those ages 18-23. While many young adults who are open and interested in religious life fall in this category, many are beyond this demographic.

Finally the book uses the titles of “practicing,” “sporadic,” and “disengaged,” to categorize the young adults from whom they draw their statistics and subsequent conclusions. It is important to note that these classifications were developed based on frequency of Mass attendance, frequency of personal prayer, and self reported importance of religious faith. While it is necessary to draw some lines for the sake of measurement, any choice in demarcating young adults will inevitably have weaknesses. A weakness of particular note to religious communities is that young adults are not measured in regard to their orientation and practice of service and social justice. Religious communities, with their history of activism and charisms that are often expressed in work with the most vulnerable, should be aware that the grouping of young adults mentioned in this book may not be the contingent of young adults from whom they would draw interest and potential new members.

With those ground rules in place, I certainly found that this book holds important implications for those who work with young adults in vocation and formation ministry. First, Smith identifies significant changes that have occurred within the larger American Catholic community. He points out the erosion of the historical system for creating Catholic identity among young adults. He notes: “no approach to effective inter-generational Catholic faith transmission had been devised and instituted to replace the old system—and indeed it is not clear that any such effective system has yet been put into place even today.”

The form of 19th and 20th century American Catholicism allowed religious communities to integrate themselves within this system of faith transmission, expose young people to their charisms, and build relationships with them. With Catholics now disseminated beyond the bounds of their tight-knit enclaves, religious communities can no longer rely on these avenues for potential vocations or “pre-formation” work.

Religious now need to look for ways to make themselves available and accessible to young adults. They must begin by asking, “Where are they?” Communities must identify where these young adults are since, as this book points out, they are gradually slipping outside the boundaries of parish and Catholic social circles.

Second, communities must partner with parish and diocesan leaders to create a comprehensive response to this relationship vacuum. The previously successful system was not created by one institution working independently but by a number of them, including schools, parishes, communities, and dioceses, operating in concert.

Reach out during transition points

One perhaps surprising insight Smith provides is that “most people’s life courses are structured by a process termed, ‘reciprocal continuity.’ That means that even in times of transition, people seek out new institutions or social relations that support their previously established identities.” Religious communities that can recognize important transition points for young adults can make themselves available during these moments. They can minister to young adults who are looking to maintain a coherence with the faith life that they possess (no matter how fragmented or infrequent that faith life may be). In so doing, religious could become the major point of connection between those young adults and their religious adherence. This type of contact could allow young adults to see religious communities as more than extensions of their own faithfulness—indeed perhaps they could see the communities as part of the fabric of their identity.

Finally the data shows this: “Although Catholics are not as highly devoted overall as non-Catholics, it is not because they are extremely unreligious, but rather because Catholics are more likely to fall somewhere in the middle levels of religiousness. They tend to gravitate more toward moderate levels of religious faith and practice.” Young adult Catholics by and large are not hostile to religious faith, and in fact many retain at least some connection to their faith practices as youths. When religious communities build relationships with young adults, and when those young people begin to show interest in potential membership, the vocation and formation directors can build upon a faith life that already exists. Young adults may still have obstacles in terms of their relationship with the larger ecclesial body beyond the religious community. However, such obstacles need not determine all of their relationship with the church.

As Smith himself notes throughout the book, while the NSYR data regarding young adults is the most comprehensive to date about the religious life of young Catholics, it is by no means exhaustive. Each piece of information should be held within the larger story of American Catholicism. Be that as it may, those in vocation and formation ministries would be wise to let the information in this book have an impact on the way they develop relationships with this age group and then work with those who show an interest in their communities. Young Catholic America is not a game plan for effective ministry by religious communities, but it is a basic map that can help guide and steer those communities in their outlook and activities.


Craig Gould is the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He formerly directed the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union, including the Catholics on Call program. He is married and the father of four.


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