The State of Catholic Youth Today

The young Church is hungry for the truth. After World Youth Day, they head to National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.

Youth listen attentively at a conference. Youth leaders say teens are hungry for the truth of the faith.
Youth listen attentively at a conference. Youth leaders say teens are hungry for the truth of the faith. (photo: National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry)

Over the weekend of Nov. 17, 25,000 Catholic youth and their chaperons will gather in Indianapolis for the National Catholic Youth Conference. Coming only three months after the huge outpouring of faith, joy and peaceful witness that characterized World Youth Day in Madrid, NCYC provides another chance to see the faith through young eyes. What do American youth want from their faith? What do they have to give? And what role will they play in the Church as it heads into increasingly difficult times?

NCYC is one of the major events on the Catholic youth calendar. Every two years, high-school age students gather for a three-day experience of prayer, keynote addresses, adoration, workshops, Mass and praise-and-worship music. Robert McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, which organizes the event, sees it as a kind of World Youth Day for American teens.

“It’s not just a conference,” McCarty said. “It’s a celebration of the young Church. It’s a pilgrimage that young people begin preparing for a year out. They’re doing fundraising, planning, praying together and getting ready for this pilgrimage. At NCYC, the wider Church gets to see the giftedness, energy and passion of the young Church.”

This energy is vital to the universal Church, as Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged in his remarks about World Youth Day. He told the youth that “the Church depends on you. She needs your lively faith, your creative charity and the energy of your hope. Your presence renews, rejuvenates and gives new energy to the Church. That is why World Youth Days are a grace, not only for you, but for the entire people of God.”

McCarty would agree. While attending the past five World Youth Days, he observed “the deep and genuine hunger for the holy, and the hunger to be connected to something bigger, that I find in youth and young adults today. At World Youth Day they connect with the universal Church, under the banner of the Pope, so they really have this incredible sense that they’re part of something bigger.”

Young & Catholic, But for How Long?

Correctly understanding the perceptions and desires of Catholic youth is a crucial issue for the future of the Church. As shown by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are 30 million lapsed Catholics, which would make them the largest religious denomination in the country. One in 10 adult Americans is an ex-Catholic.

The usual culprits are blamed in the Pew survey. Among former Catholics, 65% stopped believing the Church’s teachings overall, while 56% cite the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and 48% blame the prohibition on birth control. Those who left the Church to become Protestant didn’t have as many issues with these teachings, but they felt their spiritual needs were not being met.

These statistics expose the failure of catechesis and youth-ministry programs to adequately engage and educate the young. Catholic youth are exposed to anywhere from eight to 12 years of religious education, and the Church is still losing many.

Mark Hart, executive vice president of Life Teen and the keynote speaker for NCYC, argues that we’re just not listening to young Catholics, and this is a key reason for our failure to properly pass on the faith: “A lot of teens are spoken at; they’re not spoken to. Very rarely are they asked their opinion of anything. We’re seeing the results of that because they would rather go talk to their friends than their mentors or adults, because their friends will listen to them.” (See interview with Hart here.)

In a spiritually devastated culture, the Church should be a shining light that draws youth in and grounds them in something deeper. “They’re yearning for real relationships,” Hart said. “They’re yearning for intimate relationships, and I mean intimate in the purest sense of the word. They’re dying to be spoken to, but they’re also dying to be listened to.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, will be participating in NCYC. He agrees that the key to engaging Catholic youth is “conversation, dialogue and an openness to their questions. I think one has to be honest with them about what the Church teaches and why we believe what we believe, but to do so from a positive perspective. I think you need to emphasize what we are forrather than what we are against.”

“Teens really desire depth,” said Hart. “They desire relevance and depth in their relationships and their faith. When you introduce teens to the mystical, to the ethereal, to the world beyond what they see, they are far more open to it than adults are.”

The key, says Hart, is meeting them where they are, then “walking them into the sacred.” The approach pioneered by Life Teen uses contemporary worship music and engaging speakers to set up an encounter with the sacred. An evening event may begin with 30 minutes of music, followed by 20 minutes from a speaker, and conclude with an encounter with the Christ during 30 to 40 minutes of Eucharistic adoration.

Bob McCarty sees the needs of youth as an issue of five universal “hungers”: Youth today are hungering for meaning and purpose in their lives, some recognition of the gifts they have to give to the Church, a connection to something bigger than themselves, justice, and an encounter with the holy.

For McCarty, the key question for the Church today is: “How do we feed those hungers?” As he observes, young people “will go where their hungers are fed. Responding to those hungers is the clearest sign that this is a community that values you and invites you in.  If we ever hope to educate their heads about the faith, it has to begin with engaging their hearts. They want to know more about this faith of ours: our community, rituals, teachings, all of it. But until we engage their hearts, we never get to the next stage of educating their heads.”

Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald is an

eighth-grade catechist from Medford, New Jersey.