Desperate for Answers: How the Church Is Helping Millennials Find Their Way

Combating the ‘diseases of despair’ that often plague modern young adults.

(photo: Unsplash)

Many millennials are sinking into despair — and it’s not difficult to figure out why. This generation was born into a culture of instant gratification, pleasure and comfort and told that their purpose in life is to be happy.

Is it any wonder that such undue pressure and misguided formation in seeking pleasure and happiness would lead these young people to its exact opposite?

Time magazine recently reported on a marked increase over the last decade in “deaths of despair” involving drugs, alcohol or suicide in the 18- to 34-year-old age group. The story was based on a report from two public-health groups, Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust, which said that, among millennials, drug-related deaths increased 108%, as alcohol-related deaths jumped 69% and suicides went up 35%, between 2007 and 2017.

Although Time said the report points out that young people are more likely than older adults to engage in risky behaviors like using drugs and alcohol, it cites other “generation-specific factors” affecting millennials, such as financial stress related to student-loan debt and health care and housing costs. “Social support may also be lacking,” according to Time, “as fewer people take part in faith- and community-based organizations and more people delay marriage.”

Catholics who work with young adults agree that millennials are prone to despair, but they take a deeper view of the problem. A sense of hopelessness, they say, is a natural symptom of a society that has increasingly rejected the truth that humans were made for a relationship with God and is no longer anchored in a Christian worldview.  

Devoid of that, many millennials are left without answers to three major questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I supposed to do — what am I made for?

Pete Burak, a 31-year-old millennial, directs i.d.9:16, the young-adult outreach of Renewal Ministries. Burak said, “The cultural narrative in the name of freedom has left all those questions up for self-determination, and it stymies or puts people on a path toward despair. If I’m responsible for defining who I am, where I belong and what I’m made for, there’s just an intrinsic limitation to that. Self-determination can only go so far before you realize how deeply lacking it is and how broken we are and how we really don’t have the answers to those things.”


Purpose-Driven Faith

Hilary Draftz, a millennial who is the West area director of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), concurred. She said the purpose of life imparted to her generation could be reduced to two guiding principles: Do no harm to anyone, and make yourself happy. But such an outlook on life is mediocre compared with God’s reason for creating human beings.

“It would make sense that you would not have hope if you’re not living for the purpose we’re made for,” Draftz said. “The Catechism [of the Catholic Church] would tell us it’s for our relationship with him: ‘God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.’”

Although Draftz said the practical factors cited by the Time article are legitimate ones, ultimately, she believes people who have forgotten the purpose of human life are more likely to fall into hopelessness. “The solution,” she said, “is the same today as it always has been: Jesus Christ and the freedom he offers.”

But Draftz acknowledges even millennials raised in the Church are subject to cultural influences that can keep them from encountering the hope the Catholic faith can offer.

Helping the Church respond to the millennials’ plight, Paul Jarzembowski is assistant director of youth and young adult ministries for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said millennials face intense pressure to perform, to never show weakness, to appear cool and confident, to assimilate, to succeed or to make their voices heard in an otherwise noisy world. If success doesn’t come instantly, they can experience great despair and often lack a community to support them in those moments.

“Previous generations had families, neighborhoods and churches to lean on during the transitions and crises of young adulthood,” Jarzembowski said. “Without many of these support structures, this generation of young people can go deeper into that despair, which can lead to unhealthy choices, including drug use and suicide.”


A Search for Communion

Additionally, even as technology connects vast numbers of people, many who use it are left feeling isolated and lonely.

Megan Mastroianni, a millennial who serves as the associate director of Anthem, the youth and young-adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said her generation and those born after them are looking for real human friendship, but they’re not finding it in the superficial interactions on their smartphones.

“We’re together, but we’re isolated,” she said. “There’s a lot of communication, but not a lot of communion.”

Draftz added that she sees a poverty of friendship on college campuses, due largely to technology providing so much surface-level friendship that it inoculates millennials’ hunger for the real thing. That point was driven home, she said, on a recent FOCUS mission trip when many of the 18- to 22-year-old participants reported that the highlight for them was a group dinner at an Italian restaurant.

“They had not experienced a communal meal of that kind of depth,” Draftz said.

Furthermore, many millennials who grew up Catholic are not even finding their way into a church because they were sacramentalized but not catechized and evangelized, and, Draftz said, their desire for authenticity prevents them from engaging in something that has no meaning for them.

“Just doing practices without a relationship with the Lord is not something millennials have time for,” she said.

Father Bill Peckman, the pastor of two parishes in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, has written about millennials for He said when millennials do come to church, often they don’t hear anything different from what they get elsewhere.

“I blame my brethren and myself and the bishops for this because I don’t think anybody has said catechesis has been good for the last quarter to half-century,” Father Peckman said. “They have learned what we have taught them. ... What they hear out of the pulpit and from the priests is ‘be good,’ which is a very subjective goal to attain.”


Keep It Real

All this means that reaching millennials with the Church’s timeless message of hope requires something other than the programs and methods that worked with previous generations.

For example, when Draftz and her husband tried to start a young-adult ministry in their parish by planning a Theology on Tap event at a local brewery, only a few people showed up. Prompted by a FOCUS colleague, Draftz started approaching young people after Mass and inviting them to brunch. No one turned her down.

“What did Jesus do?” Mastroianni said. “He had a small group of 12 men, and he worked with them. It’s not about the program and the fancy events. It’s: Do we have disciple-makers on the ground?”

She added that what resonates with, inspires and attracts millennials is someone who is authentic — not someone trying to be cool or hip.

“It’s strange,” Mastroianni said, “because for all the curated posts and filters and facades that can be portrayed in our current culture and social media, [millennials] can sniff out a fake really easily. … They just want someone who’s real and genuine.”

Burak, who also is a presenter for the Millennial Church Conference, which helps parishes and dioceses reach millennials, agreed.

“What we desire more than glitz and glamour is authenticity,” he said, adding that the beauty of a life well-lived is probably as effective as anything in reaching millennials. “For millennials, goodness is the doorway — meeting people who are good and true and can love them,” he said. 

The USCCB’s Jarzembowski said the Church learned through the process of the 2018 synod on young people that listening and accompaniment should be paramount in ministry with young adults.

“Programs and education are important,” he said, “but the first steps are relationship-building and pastoral care.”

In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit, Jarzembowski said, “Pope Francis offers a new foundation for the Church’s ministry with youth and young adults.” In addition to raising up accompaniment as a key element, he encourages the use of mentors to guide young people through life’s challenges.

In his own work with millennials, Father Peckman said he has tried to redirect them from the temporal on which they tend to be focused to the transcendent by teaching them to live virtuous lives.

“The way out of hopelessness is a life of virtue because virtue teaches you to look beyond yourself,” he said. “If you’re only looking inward, you have no choice but to look at the temporal. … The transcendent means you have to change your lives. The temporal is molding the world to what I want it to be.”

Through talking with and counseling millennials who have fallen into despair, Father Peckman said he has seen many come out of it. “I’ve seen the aura of depression replaced by joy,” he said. “Every time it’s happened, there’s been a direct correlation between leaving hopelessness and embracing the practice of the faith.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.