Spiritually thirsty millennials turn to the occult

Growing up, religion was a Sunday affair for Michael, and he described the faith in his home as not “particularly stringent.” As an adult convert to Catholicism, he entered deeply into his faith and studied theology. During the same time, he, like a growing number of millennials, also became a practitioner of magic.

Michael told Our Sunday Visitor that the magic he practices grounds his “daily spiritual practice” and allows him to see divine grace at work “in a solid, concrete way.” He connected the interest in the occult among millennials as being about “the search for something deeper, something that’s not superficial, but is beautiful, ancient and tangible.”

“Both magic and religion challenge a completely superficial, rational world view.”

While magical practices may seem harmless or ridiculous to some, they are still spiritually dangerous. The Catechism of the Catholic Church rejects all forms of divination and magic, warning Catholics against practicing them, and identifying behind them “a desire for power,” even if the intentions are otherwise good (see sidebar).

Baptized Catholics universally have not accepted that teaching. According to a 2009 Pew survey, around 20 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe in astrology, or that crystals harbor spiritual energy, among other non-Catholic beliefs. But beyond poor catechesis, the interest in the occult reflects the deep spiritual thirst of a generation in turmoil. Approximately 27 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious, and for Americans of all beliefs, including Catholics, resorting to magic may be an attempt to cope with the spiritual anxieties of a changing world.

Symptom of breakdown

According to American historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of “A History of Witchcraft” (Thames & Hudson, $25.95), popular interest in the occult grows “in periods of rapid social breakdown, when establishments cease to provide readily accepted answers, and people turn elsewhere for assurance.”

An interest in discussing spiritual matters also led Tony [last name withheld by request] into a youthful dalliance with magic. Although a Catholic in high school, he found people at his parish had little interest in discussing spiritual matters with him. But the kids who were interested, he said, were involved in the occult. Among them, he found people equally interested in spiritual matters. Plus, he said, “they used to throw pretty great parties.”

Today, Tony is out of the occult and serves his parish as youth minister. He told OSV that youth like him did not enter the occult because the Church was unable to answer their questions. Rather, it was that Catholics often did not want to discuss the supernatural, spiritual warfare or signs and wonders, and they tend to dismiss them as legendary or irrelevant.

Poorly equipped

For many of the millennial generation, Tony said, society fails to provide a sense of significance that humans naturally need. Because science or secular sources cannot answer their questions, some of them find themselves in an occult world that is unabashedly spiritual.

Catholic youth ministry, Tony explained, needs to be able to address the occult. However, the occult ends up “rarely talked about, and when we talk about it, we talk about it poorly.” The tendency, he said, is for Catholics to react to specific concerns, such as Ouija boards, Harry Potter or yoga, and miss the opportunity to frame a comprehensive answer to people’s questions about their relation to God and the spiritual realm. “We as church ministers are not reacting out of a place of confidence in God’s ability to hold us and carry young people through this, but out of a place of fear,” Tony said.

The Church on Divination and Magic
“All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

Unfortunately, he said, the caution and fear Catholics often express in relation to occult powers can also create a false impression of an overwhelmingly powerful demonic world Christians are helpless against.

Father Paul Desmarais, coordinator for the Ministry of Spiritual Deliverance for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, told OSV that “in a lot of ways we’re caught short” in dealing with occult interests. He said he received no seminary training on it and only learned about the occult while in ministry. He said that treating interest in the occult as a phase, something someone will grow out of, is a “convenient excuse not to deal with it.”

In his own ministry, Father Desmarais prefers to find out why someone is interested in the occult, and what they hope to gain from it, instead of debating the issue. He then encourages the person to find empowerment through their own gifts and talents, rather than from the occult.

In addition to the task of illuminating the danger of casual occult practices that some may think harmless or even good, Tony added, is the need to form in believers a sense of closeness with God, and to practice a love of Christ, which welcomes others to encounter him.

Connect and accompany

Pastoral concerns about how to minister to Catholics caught in the occult tend to stay at the local level. Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, told OSV that diocesan leaders hardly have raised the issue. He identified, however, a sense of isolation and desire for belonging as factors that can lead millennials to the occult.

“The Church seeks to connect with all people,” Jarzembowski said, including young men and women who “have found a connection with the occult or other similar experiences.”

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

In its preparation for the 2018 Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, he said, the Church is particularly intent to discover how millennials who have abandoned religious practices “are finding meaning in their actions, and to accompany them toward a better relationship with Christ and the community of the Church.”

Jarzembowski added, “The Church is concerned about the spiritual welfare of youth and young adults, whether it currently rests with the occult, atheism or indifference.”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from California.