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Enviably, I recently canvassed a room full of young people, my students, about church attendance.

The occasion was an all-school Mass earlier that day. A non-Catholic student broached the question of worship style, repeating the decades-old platitudes about young people abandoning the faith because of boring music and dull liturgy (for the record, the singing at this Mass was supported by electric guitar and bass). It took the 21 high-school students in the room about five minutes to demolish these assumptions utterly. At best, they concluded, popular music would make the Mass more tolerable if they were forced to go. It would not, however, make them into churchgoers.

This jives with my own experience. I know many faithful Catholics who are sincerely attached to contemporary or charismatic worship, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes that music and style were for them a new lens through which they could see through to the Gospel past negative experiences in the past that were associated with other styles of worship.

Sometimes it was simply the environment in which they had first worshipped God in spirit and in truth after their conversion, their “earliest love songs,” as Michele Chronister so ably put it in her recent post, “The Grace of Those 1980s Hymns”.

But in all my conversations, including this one, I have not met any Catholic attached to contemporary worship whose attendance at Mass depends upon the presence of a drum set; rather, they are present faithfully at Mass because Our Lord is also present. Musical style is a preference or, at most, a sentimental attachment with deep personal meaning to them, but never a sine qua non.

Rather, what emerged in our conversation as a class was a much deeper crisis among young people, a crisis that is much more difficult to address than worship style; it is a crisis of faith. In some ways, it is attractive to think that the reason the Church is hemorrhaging millennials is because millennials do not like sacred music, vestments, and incense, and can only stand rock concerts and raves [demonstrably false in a significant number of cases, but that is beyond the scope of this article].  Music and worship style are something we can easily control and adjust; if that were the problem, we could solve it instantaneously by papal fiat. What we cannot control, and can only dispel with great difficulty, is the climate of unbelief to which young people are exposed and subjected by forces beyond our control.

The picture of the unbelieving high-schooler that my students imparted to me was that of a creature overwhelmed by data. A single Google search will yield more “refutations” of Catholic truth than you could consider and refute in a single lifetime. The orthodoxies of ten thousand world religions, and all of their sacred texts, and all of the finest works of their greatest mystics, sages, and theologians, may be summoned with a few keystrokes. Again, more than anyone could undertake to read, let alone consider, in a lifetime. And what of their heresies and schisms, equally well-articulated?

So, sanely, young people defer their judgment in particular matters to experts: scientists and their parents.

From the scientists, and from the technology on which they read and listen to what they have to say, they learn that a materialist, reductionist methodology has domesticated the laws of nature and made them into man’s servants. They learn that supernatural explanations for many natural phenomena have been overturned, and they are told to expect more of the same in the near future. They are used to unbelieving scientists speaking with bold confidence in the public sphere about the death of religion and the triumph of rationality, and they are conditioned to believe that the system of thought these scientists espouse provides them with as many motives of credibility as there are pieces of technology that they use every day.

On the other hand, from their parents, who are (and rightly so, according to the Church’s mind) viewed by their children as the expert teachers of religion and morality, too many of my students appeared to have learned complete indifferentism. I was actually shocked at how often my students claimed that their parents had encouraged them to “make their own decision” in matters of faith, teaching them about religions, but making no particularly strong case for any one of them. This, when contrasted with the confidence of the materialist Gospel’s zealous evangelists, has presented them with a fairly obvious choice: one of these people really thinks there are reasons to accept his religious beliefs, and one does not. Who is to be believed? And what of the apparently sincere parents of deep faith who are unable to articulate not merely apologetics, but the kerygma of the Gospel?

In Genesis, God does not grant Abraham a son by Sarah until he has attained faith and demonstrated complete trust in God, for He wishes to raise up spiritual descendants to Abraham, not just sons of the flesh. Any spiritual children that we are to beget must also inherit from us faith, not simple enthusiasm.

Faith is more than attraction, than entertainment, although nothing is more desirable to the one who possesses faith than worship.

Faith is more than apologetics can ever demonstrate, since it does not merely imply that the claims of Christ are credible, but that belief in Christ is compelling.

Faith, we are told, comes by hearing.

In a religiously pluralistic climate, it is easy for unbelief to articulate itself in singular contrast to every other viewpoint, just as it was once for monotheism. The materialists provide a way out of the whole confusing mess, a confusing mess inhabited largely by the half-convinced, and very many millennials find that quite attractive.

If we cannot articulate the foundations of faith, the singular uniqueness of the Gospel in contrast so many other claims and religious traditions, how can we ever hope to be heard?

If I claimed that I knew how, I would obviously be selling snake oil.

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

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18 thoughts on “Why?”

  1. Avatar

    ” In some ways, it is attractive to think that the reason the Church is hemorrhaging millennials …”

    When the church bleeds faithful the reasons are all the same. There is little difference between the kids of the Reformation and the children known as ‘baby boomers’. Both exited because of the Church’s audacity to transmit gibberish to its own flock. If you think the selling of indulgences has anything o do with our Savior then you totally fail to understand the Catholics of the 15th century who lived through it. If you think that sending people to hell for eating meat on Friday then with magical thinking make it A-OK didn’t rock the Catholic Church to its foundations then you are sadly a half century behind the times. If you think the Church debating whether babies who die unattended before baptism may put them forever out of God’s presence then you are part of the very problem. If you think missing mass and murder are similar in spiritual consequences then it’s no wonder your blog reads Why ? The Gospel that Jesus spoke had nothing to do with the whims a once powerful church could impose on its flock All this history, never mind the Inquisition is now on display to marvel at and the conclusion intellect and reason reach is … how sad. Keep it simple was the cardinal rule that was broken and this and only this is what you are lamenting.

    1. Avatar

      Here is where I think we really don’t disagree: we are good at debating the externals, at blaming them, and at changing them to attempt to fix problems; this amounts to what you are suggesting: but the new Magisterial tone towards unbaptized infants, the elimination of Friday abstinence, &c. have not retrieved the Baby Boomers. Because without a basic articulation of What the Faith Is and Why We Ought to Believe it, at the most foundational level, all of these externals lack a context in which they are relevant, and so any discussion of them is a dead letter to the wandering sheep.

      I think Gary Wills, an observer neither blind nor “behind the times”, has written a very different take on the effect of these externals on his generation. In the context of this article, I’d rather see a discussion of just what “gibberish” extrinsic to the Gospel the Church is articulating that is driving millennials away, that is a better explanation for their departure than a simple failure to articulate the Faith convincingly.

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        Nicely put, this observation of un-retrieved boomers; neither will the relaxation of annulment procedures necessarily have them standing in line to get back in, I think.

        “Because without a basic articulation of What the Faith Is and Why We Ought to Believe it, at the most foundational level,…”

        Don’t mistake the ‘boomers’ as not having a faith to articulate. You
        don’t believe in faith, you practice it in ways the Spirit moves one.
        What is problematic on passing on this gift is how you articulate it to the next generation. The church is still in analog mode trying to talk to a digital audience. The Millennials have been exposed to a small but important 4 piece puzzle that forms the ‘big picture’. Look at the continents of Africa and South America. Very different but …
        they fit together perfectly. Always did even before plate tectonics
        explained the reason. So too, Eastern deism, Muslim, Judaism and a host of filler religions ( and some very ancient ) have left gaps in their understanding of one deity, many paths, God’s plan
        for ALL of mankind. Unless you can integrate with respect THEIR mysteries, you are leaving them theologically bewildered. Religion should not be a contest about who has a more realistic theology.,

      2. Avatar


        The first reactions I have heard to the relaxed annulment procedures from fallen away, divorced Catholics have certainly not been enthusiastic and eager. On the natural level, it has the same effect as Gary Wills (here I go again) observed about the disciplinary changes in the wake of the Council: yes, perhaps certain people were not so gruntled with the status quo as they might have been, perhaps some even wished some of the restrictions would be lifted, but those very same people were then truly dis-gruntled to learn that they could have avoided the whole centuries-long rigmarole with the lifting of one pontifical finger. The mystery of a dark room, in which they were open to there being something they could not see or understand behind their difficulties, shattered by the flip of a light switch, apparently revealing that their protracted marriage cases or trying fasts under pain of sin had been mere arbitrarities.

        As usual, the people who were not bothered by the disciplines, who contextualized them within their faith in the Church, were also not bothered by the changes in fasting rules &c., since they could contextualize them within the same framework of faith. But very often the fence-sitters were pushed over the unintended side of the fence.

        Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not mean to say that Boomers are complete unbelievers. But I do mean that they are not articulating the kind of confidence or certitude that invites denominational loyalty or, as is apparent, often even religious belief, in their children. Obviously you think that is just right, and that this is where Weltgeist leadeth. But, whatever the case, it is primarily causative of the millennial disaffiliation with organized religious belief.

      3. Avatar

        So, how to try remedying these Millennials ? In my opinion, the church needs to expand its teaching, dogma and tradition to swoop not only the lapsed but the world into looking at the church with awe.
        1. make Confession and Sacrament of the Sick available to everyone person on earth.
        2. get up on that chair and forever rescind every mention of limbo
        3. have Catholics marry in a civil service with sacramental marriage about 20 years down the road to insure success.
        4. since it is utterly unknowable, defer to God the imprint of mortal sin on the soul and assume the second condition
        (knowing it is so) is beyond knowing.
        5. arrange to pray in other churches as a sign that they too have a stake in salvation.
        6. come up with a millennial way to instruct the young WHY the bread and wine is changed – hint: it has something to do with having faith the size of a mustard seed which is really the science of an untapped and unwritten Law
        7. get out there as a parish and publicly perform corporeal / spiritual works of mercy.
        8. teach them about how to recognize God blessing or instructing them in their life hint: serendipity/synchronicity..
        9. explain those parables of Jesus in 21st century terms.
        10. incorporate other faiths terms and conditions to these young ones to augment the truth in our own.

        End of thread, Sean, thanks for commenting.

      4. Avatar

        Since people have accepted contraception and it has become widespread, not only do fornication, abortion and divorce run rampant, there is a loss of faith…. There becomes a thinking that “that’s just the official teaching”, and with that everything has unraveled and parents/clergy ability to pass on the faith is severely weakened, as is the family (f, d & a), thus the children.

        The odd thing is, the teaching on contraception is a strong reason for faith, not weak. When oh when will this become apparent and really really taught.
        Not sure when, but it can only happen eventually…

  2. Avatar

    Why have so many young people left the faith?….
    No proper catechesis for the last 50 or so years.
    Parents who themselves were trying to deal with the changes in the Church and what they meant.
    Other alternative activities on Sunday morning…sports etc
    Lack of respect for parents and older people and their traditions leading to a lack of respect for God.
    Among others……

  3. Avatar

    I’m an ex-Catholic now atheist. I’m not in the millennial generation, but my son is. For what it’s worth here is my take on why young people are leaving religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.


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      All well and good, RA but by not understanding what a ‘higher power’ is
      you are sorely bankrupt in the area of … help in your day to day living
      experience and bereft of calling on a universal reality for succor. In other
      words, if your horizon is nothing more than mankind for inspiration you
      are below the spiritual poverty line indeed. Of course, faith is a gift and
      it is said that God watches over certain drunks and fools.

      1. Avatar

        My purpose posting here was not to start a religious debate or certainly not to imply anyone was a drunk or fool or spiritually bankrupt but only to explain, IMO, why youth are leaving the churches.

        By the way my horizon is NOT “nothing more than mankind”, rather in my moral horizon I settle for nothing less than humanity.


      2. Avatar

        I was doing the implying and would not debate any atheist as either you have the capacity to believe or don’t believe – cheers to you too.

      3. Avatar

        If your unwillingness to discuss is any indication of the attitude of most Catholics, then the fate of future lapsed Catholics is in good hands. To dismiss someone as wither incapable of believer or not believing means that you won’t be able to reach out to those children as they leave the faith. They always find a warm welcome in non believing society.

      4. Avatar

        Let me be clear on atheism. If one can look through the Hubble
        and not believe in the higher power that created it, that person is
        a fool. If after looking, one can deduce that a higher power did
        create the universe but said power has no influence in their life,
        well, then they are wise beyond their years.

    2. Avatar

      Point by point:

      (1), (2), (4) all came up explicitly in my conversation with my students. Social pressure is huge; one of the kids actually reported that she would rather go to church, but her parents did not in fact take her, and she couldn’t drive.

      I think the Internet is bigger than communication; it allows a doubt to flower into joining another culture, another word. Doubt has no one clear resolution, limited by geography, as at points in the past. All the more reason why Christianity must, if it is to attract these souls, articulate itself clearly and distinctly. The idea of common ground, of dialogue, is ultimately important in coexisting peacefully, but as an evangelistic strategy was developed for a world in which people limited by geography came to the table with strongly-held religious opinions. Ecumenism as we once tried it is, frankly, outdated.

      The biggest issue with (4) from a Christian point of view, is that Christianity is not a matter of pure rationality. In Genesis, we find God trying to light a fire of faith in Abraham that will pass from generation to generation. It is a rare convert who will read himself into the faith.

      Thanks so much for the contribution.

  4. Avatar

    The problem is that most Bishops and most Priests do NOT actively and frequently encourage literate Laity to read both a Catholic Bible,
    and the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition’ of 1997 (dark green cover in the USA) at home.

    When Teachers, Parents, University Students, High School Students, do not know the Faith accurately and completely – they can not pass on the Faith accurately and completely. It is as simple as that.

    “ The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved … and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine,
    attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium.” – Pope John Paul II, CCC pg 5.

    For quotes from our Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis about the CCC on the internet go to: “What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE”

  5. Avatar

    In your article you mention parents teaching their children “about religions, but making no particularly strong case for any one of them.” It might be interesting to understand how those parents might have come to believe what they were teaching.

    Following Vatican II a revolution in childhood catechesis took place in the United States. Since 1885 the standard text in most dioceses had been the Baltimore Catechism, with its solid doctrine and moral theology presented in a question-and-answer format. Generations of young Catholics memorized those answers and, if my experience is any indication, learned the meaning behind those memorized words in class. Yes, this was knowing about God, rather than knowing God, but the latter was also addressed in many different ways: weekly school Masses, stations of the cross, 40 hour devotions, rosaries, novenas, etc., etc. Catholicism as a relationship with God was part of the air we breathed.

    Following Vatican II, however, memorization and, to some extent, doctrine became dirty words in many circles and the Baltimore Catechism was tossed out in favor of catechesis by emotion and experience. Gone, too, was any emphasis on the devotional practices we had grown up with. Millions of Catholics ignorant of the basics of their faith was the entirely predictable result. Furthermore, the level of this illiteracy grew with time, as un- and under-catechized children grew up and became parents bereft of any real knowledge or understanding of the faith to pass on to their offspring.

    Nation-wide data published in the Official Catholic Directory clearly shows the more recent effects of this dumbing-down of catechesis. For example, in the early 1980s, 65% of our K-8 aged Catholic children were enrolled in either Catholic schools or religious education programs, leaving some 35% without any formal catechetical training. Thirty years later only 46% were receiving formal training in the faith, while some 54% were getting nothing.

    Furthermore, dioceses generally deemed among the more “liberal” seem to have fared the worst. For example, in my own diocese (Rochester) the percentage of uncatechized children went from 9% to 57% over those same 30 years.

    Over a decade ago Fr. Joseph F. Wilson of the Diocese of Brooklyn summed up the situation as follows:

    “Forty years ago, we dismantled an extremely effective method of catechesis, the handing on of the Faith from generation to generation. We replaced it with coloring books, rap sessions, freethinking, freewheeling and finger painting, and that is NOT an exaggeration. At least two generations of Catholics have grown up almost entirely ignorant of Catholic doctrine, and securely in possession of a do-it-yourself morality.”

    And a decade before that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proclaimed that “the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too obvious.”

    And so it really comes as no surprise that a large percentage of today’s young people – and their parents – are functionally illiterate when it comes to the Catholic faith.

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