By Emily Stimpson - OSV Newsweekly, 6/17/2012
Young Catholics are losing their religion.
That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of a study released in April by the Public Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
According to the study, nearly a quarter of millennial Catholics raised in the Faith have left the Church by the time they are 24. A majority also support abortion rights and same-sex marriages. They see Christianity as “judgmental” and have no qualms with the state requiring religious institutions to provide free contraceptive coverage regardless of conscience objections.
The picture the PRI/Berkley Center study paints is a grim one. But it’s not the whole picture. It’s a bird’s-eye view of a generation. Which means a lot of the details, good and bad, get missed.
And there are good details.
While the majority of the millennial generation may be headed in one direction, many young Catholics are not only embracing the Faith, but dedicating their lives to spreading it. They’re entering religious orders, blogging on the Internet, doing mission work and helping form other young Catholics. They’re also doing that with passion, conviction and success.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor asked six of those millennial Catholics — faithful between the ages of 18 and 27 — to share their stories with us. We asked them what they were doing, how they were doing it and, most importantly, why.
Here’s what they had to say.
Sister Evangeline (Mary Kate) Suprenant
I was about 4 or 5 when I first started talking about becoming a religious sister. Apparently, I told my dad, “I’m going to live with you forever. Until I’m 8. Then, I’m going to be a nun.”
I’m not sure where the idea came from. I grew up knowing that Christ and his Church were beautiful, and there was always this sense of mystery that I found so appealing whenever I would encounter anything holy. We also read a lot of saint books, and I can remember looking at the pictures of the saints and thinking how much I wanted to please God. I knew that the religious life pleased him, so somehow that all came together in my mind.
I didn’t think much about religious life in middle school, but when I was 14, my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and almost without hesitation I said, “A religious sister.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth I felt such peace.
After that, the call was so clear. That’s why I entered as soon as I finished high school. When you know God is calling you to do something, it’s hard to do other things first. Just finishing high school was difficult. It’s like falling in love and wanting to get married. Waiting is difficult, and you don’t want to put it off.
I entered on Aug. 28, 2010. I spent a year as an aspirant and postulant. Now I’m in my first novice year — the canonical year. It’s more contemplative and you spend time learning about vows and taking classes. The second novice year is your apostolic year, where you get experience in the apostolic life of the community.
Do you know any young Catholics living their Faith with passion and conviction? Tell us in the comments below.
Right now I’m learning to live in a totally different way. Religious life is not just a list of things you do. It’s an actual identity. And you’re not just taking on a new schedule or a new name. You’re taking on a mission, being sent out by Christ. To do that you have to know how he wants you to live in this community. That’s why it’s called formation and not just education.
There are so many little things in life that prevent us from being who we are. And so a lot of the formation process is working on your own personality, not to change it but to better use it. It’s also about learning to not rely on what you do but on being used by Christ, being a spouse to him and being faithful to him in each moment. That really is key. You plan on entering religious life to do great things for God, but you quickly learn that it’s being faithful in the little things that pleases him the most.
For women discerning a call to religious life, I recommend cultivating a spirit of silence. Go to daily Mass as often as possible and sit in the presence of the Eucharist. Get to know Christ. Develop a friendship with him. Also make sure you know your Faith, who you are, and the truth about the world around you.
In the end, it comes down to what Blessed John Paul II said: “Be not afraid.” When you’re looking in a perfectly open way, with no fear, to fall in love with God and enter whatever vocation he calls you to, he’ll lead you to it. He’s already placed the call on your heart. You just have to listen for it. It really is that simple.
I grew up in a very pro-life family, where our dinner table conversations tended to focus on questions of abortion, politics, euthanasia or war. So, when I was young I got a heady dose of Catholic moral and social teaching. In junior high I gave my first pro-life speech, and in high school I became even more involved. I’d call into radio stations and send letters to the editor. I also wrote a column for my high school paper.
It wasn’t until I was a freshman at Texas A&M, however, that I actually went to pray at an abortion clinic. A group of us were hanging out at the Catholic Student Center late one night, and a friend suggested we go. It was two in the morning, but there was a round-the-clock prayer vigil (actually the very first 40 Days for Life campaign in the country), so we went.
I remember walking up that first time. It was pitch black, and the parking lot was empty, but there were a few Knights of Columbus there. The whole experience was like being hit by a 2x4. This thing I had spoken out against for so long suddenly became very real. Before, it was just an idea. I didn’t know anyone who’d had an abortion or worked in the abortion industry. But now I was standing just feet away from where babies were sucked out of wombs, where women were sold the lie that they weren’t capable of being mothers. I just wept. And I knew I needed to keep going back. That’s where I was needed.
After that, I started volunteering for the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life — recruiting, coordinating and eventually training our thousand plus volunteers. In the fall of 2007, during the first nationally coordinated 40 Days for Life Campaign, I was on the sidewalk every morning from 7 to 9, which is when all the workers at the clinic would arrive. After a few weeks, it seemed silly not to introduce myself. That’s when I met the clinic’s director, Abby Johnson. We started talking and became friends through the fence. Two years later, I got an email from her that said something big had happened and she wanted to talk. That’s when she left Planned Parenthood and started working with the Coalition for Life. The whole experience was a strong testament to the fact that continued prayer works.
After college, I became director of communications for the coalition and coordinated the 40 Days for Life campaign. I also started traveling to train people how to be sidewalk counselors.
Then, in 2008, I saw the need for an organized pro-life movement in Austin. They had four clinics, and abortions were happening every day of the week, but they hadn’t yet been able to pull off a continuous 40 day prayer vigil. So, I left College Station, took a job with a state senator in Austin, and started putting together a leadership team for an Austin Coalition for Life. We had a great response, and at our last 40 Days for Life campaign we had more than 1,000 volunteers from 72 churches.
This past January, I stepped down from leadership there and have begun conducting sidewalk counseling training sessions around the country. I’ve been to Spokane, Fargo, Corpus Christi, Washington, D.C., pretty much anywhere people have asked me to go.
A lot of people want to be sidewalk counselors, but they don’t know where to begin. They’re worried they might say something that will actually push the woman into having an abortion. I want to give them the confidence to begin talking, educate them about where these women are coming from and help them put themselves in the women’s shoes. That’s really the key. As soon as we stop empathizing, the women perceive that we’re being judgmental. We have to remember that abortion doesn’t happen because of freedom of choice. It happens because women feel like they have no choice.
Growing up, I didn’t have a strong foundation in the Faith. It wasn’t until after college, when I went to get my MBA, that I started doing some soul searching. I found myself asking, “What does being Catholic really mean to me?”
After I graduated, I was hired by FTI Consulting in Dallas, but they didn’t want me to start for eight months. I moved to Dallas anyhow, and used the time to get to know God and learn about my faith. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have an excuse to not learn more. Then, there came a day when I was simply overwhelmed by God’s mercy and decided that if I was going to be Catholic I was going to be all in. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life. So much freedom came from making that decision.
After that, I read every encyclical I could, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the lives of saints, Scripture, really everything. I also found myself wanting to talk to everyone about my faith. But, although I was attending young adult events in the diocese, I wasn’t finding an avenue where I could talk to other young professionals. I thought, “There have to be people out there like me, young adults embarking on an intense career and wanting the support of a Catholic community.”
That’s when I put together a focus group of a few others in similar situations. We decided we would start a speaker series — inviting successful Catholic executives and leaders to come and talk to us about their work and faith. We had our first event in August 2010. One hundred young professionals were in attendance. We’ve had one every month since then, and our numbers have continued to grow. We had more than 200 at our event with Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell.
Other speakers have included the CEO of American Airlines, the former No. 2 at Exxon Mobile, more high-profile executives, plus some younger entrepreneurial types. All are committed to the Catholic faith and have shown dedication to excellence in the workplace. Topics have ranged from ways we can live our faith at work, to how to live a more integrated life, what it means to offer our work to God as a form of prayer and sacrifice, and why it’s important to do your job well.
Essentially, the speakers address in relevant ways the struggles most Catholic young professionals face — struggles with balance and prioritizing time; meeting the demands of your boss but still making time for prayer, community and service; and learning to be “unplugged” (getting off your Blackberry and Facebook).
Over the past few months, we’ve grown beyond the speaker series because attendees want more. We launched a membership program that gives people access to mentors, spiritual directors, retreats and other events. We’ve also had people who have attended our events and then moved away ask about starting chapters in other cities. We think there’s potential for growth, but first we need to raise funds for a full-time director and develop a training manual to help other chapters succeed.
There really is a need out there to reach Catholic young adults where they are. After all, we’re the future of our faith.
Two years ago, my friend Terrence Sweeney and I went to a talk given by John Allen about the future of the Church. One thing that really struck us was how our generation seems to be exiting the Church so quickly in the United States. That kick-started a conversation about what our role is in stopping that. The conversation picked up steam and as a result Terrence and I, along with my wife Shea and our friend Zita Larson, decided to launch The Heart of the Matter.
The Heart of the Matter is a paper of sorts that hits on topics we think are relevant to young Catholics — issues that are often misunderstood and contribute to why some people are leaving. So: love, sex, suffering, sacrifice, work, prayer, the whole bit. It’s designed to reach our age group and more of the hippie, grunge, trendy folk that might hang out at coffee shops. We’ve got about 10 people who write regularly for the paper, then about 40 or so more who write occasionally and help us deliver it once a month to more than 50 coffee shops in the St. Paul area. We also have a blog (www.theheartofthematterblog.wordpress.com), where people can come and discuss the articles or give feedback.
The other part of what we’re doing is trying to engage our generation of Catholics through group events and service projects. During Lent we started up a corporal works of mercy series, where we pooled cash to buy food and make meals for families in need. We also went out one day and cleaned up along the river, and sponsored a clothing drive. Then there are more social aspects, like having happy hours after events or after a Holy Hour or Mass. Happy hours are a great way to invite people into the group and the corporal works of mercy show we have a heart.
So far, the feedback has been great. We just put out our 11th issue, and we’ve even had some of the baristas from the coffee shops where we drop off the papers come to our events. It helps that our writers stay positive, not negative. We want to show people that we’re a Church of “yes” not “no.”
I went on my first international mission in 2009. It was a gift from my parents. We were driving in the car and they asked if I wanted to go on a missions trip. I said “Yes,” and their reply was, “You leave Saturday at 6:30. You’re going to Mexico.”
The trip changed my life … completely. Even though I’d gone to a Catholic school and had received the sacraments, I wasn’t really practicing. I think I’d seen too many people not living what they said they believed and that left a bad taste in my mouth. So, for a long time, I did my own thing, living in the world and doing whatever I wanted. About six months before the trip, however, I had a conversion. At that point, I started going with my dad to a Baptist church. I had a hard time though, letting go of my past. I’d begged God for forgiveness and knew I was forgiven, but I still felt so guilty.
That’s when my boss, an awesome, holy woman, started nudging me to go to confession. For a long time, I told her there was no way I was going to tell some priest I didn’t know all that I’d done. But eventually, I stopped fighting it and went. He was so humble and gentle. When I left I couldn’t deny how different I felt. I was happy and free. A week later, my parents told me about the missions trip.
When I left for Mexico, I didn’t know what to expect. FMC’s missions have three different aspects: home visits to the elderly, evangelization teams and work projects. I was assigned to the home visits team. I can remember walking up to the first home. It was in terrible shape — a broken roof, crumbling walls. I knew the woman who lived there was 115. Her 80-year-old son took care of her. I was sure she would be so sad. But when we got inside, there she was, in a wheelchair, cooking food and smiling.
I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “I am so blessed. Look at everything Jesus has given me.” At that point, I lost it. That simple woman obviously loved Jesus way more than I did. In that moment, I knew I wanted to spend my life doing missions work. I wanted to serve people like her.
When I got home I went to a mission formation meeting with FMC. They announced that they had a trip to Ecuador in two weeks. I asked if I could go, and they decided to send me. It was on that trip that I met my husband. He was leading the trip. Six months later, we got engaged. Six months after that we were married. A year later, our son was born. In 2011, the first year of his life, he went to nine different countries with us on various mission trips, including Spain, Italy, Mexico, India and St. Lucia.
Last year, my husband and I became the president and vice president of FMC. Previously, the job was done by his parents. We have 82 different missionaries in three countries right now and lead several trips a year with volunteers. Although there definitely are times when things feel overwhelming, I try to keep in mind that the little sacrifices we need to make are all for building up the Kingdom of God. There’s nothing else I can imagine doing right now. I feel right in the center of God’s will.
I started blogging two years ago, during my senior year in high school and got picked up by Patheos at the beginning of my freshman year at Franciscan. That was the fall of 2011. I was largely anonymous at first, and had no intention of being anything else. I was already writing things, and just thought a blog would be a cool way to keep doing that. But then I sent a link to my blog to Mark Shea, and he posted it. Then I picked up another 20 or so readers, and from there it just spread. Now I’m getting about half a million page views a month.
As for whom I write, well, as much as I love the Church, my heart is with the godless and that culture. Blogging is a way to reach those people. It’s where the culture is, for better or for worse. And while a lot of people would never visit a Catholic website, they’ll read a Catholic blog. I think that’s because a blog is more of a voice. You can engage a voice. You can’t engage a website.
Regardless, when I write, I think of two people reading, one Christian and one atheist. I want it to be something they can both read, so that’s why I write more in the language of the modern Internet culture. The idea is to go where the world is and try to lift it up.
Sometimes that works. I got this email a couple weeks ago from a guy — an atheist. He said, “I want you to know I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and I didn’t take the Catholic Church seriously until I came across your writing.”
That was heartbreakingly flattering. At the same time, I know I annoy a lot of atheists. I’m OK with that, though. No matter what I’m writing, one of the main struggles is figuring out how to engage an atheist who views Christianity as this idiotic thing, as almost incomprehensibly dumb, to the point that they read the whole post. So, given that, any reaction is a good reaction. It means I held their attention long enough to get a reaction.
As for being a “young voice,” I have to admit, I don’t think “young Catholic voices” simply as “young Catholic voices” add much to the conversation about faith and culture. The world assigns a lot of value to being young. There’s a whole cult of youth in our culture. And in the Catholic blogging world — or really the Catholic world in general — there’s the same idea, that if you can get a young face on something, then it’s destined for greatness. But value doesn’t come from being young or relevant. What matters is the content. If your content is good, people will come.
I guess there is some value if you have great content and a young face, but that’s because of the value the world places on youth. But still, content is what matters. The truth of the Faith is what matters. If a young person just happens to be the vehicle for conveying that truth to the world, that’s great, but it’s not the most important thing.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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