By Michael Rossmann, SJ
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
These words of Dorothy Day resound in a special way with questions asked by my close friends. Recently, we have sent a flurry of e-mails back and forth on the issue of community. While we keep in touch with each other electronically, we are spread around the country and have limited opportunities to see one another. After three years of post-graduate service and work, most of my friends still do not know what they want to do in life — quite common for people in their mid-20s today. Despite this career uncertainty, however, many are quite certain of a deep desire for community.
It’s not so surprising. No longer living and socializing with old friends in their post-college life, many have tasted an acute loneliness in recent years. After moving to different cities and changing jobs multiple times in a few years, many desire some sort of stability, though most are still years away from marriage and a family. When their loneliness is compounded with unemployment or dissatisfaction with work, many of my friends seek a non-virtual support system. As valuable as e-mail and Facebook can be for keeping people connected, no online “community” can replicate cooking for one another, road tripping across the country, and having late-night conversations about God and what it all means.
At the same time, those of my age have been dubbed by some as “Generation Me.” We have been taught to follow our dreams, even when that takes us away from the people we love, and I look at my friends doing exactly that. After several years of going their own way, however, many recognize that what they really want includes other people. There has to be “something more” — something that enables them to give themselves to others. As Dorothy Day states, the only solution to the loneliness that we have all felt is love in the context of community.
So, what to do? Recently, some friends have proposed living on a farm together, despite knowing next to nothing about farming — a strong dose of idealism also seems to be an element of my generation. Even more fascinating has been the response. While everyone loves the idea in theory, many recognize that they simply cannot commit to something; there is too much they want to do, too much life to live. They do not know where they are going to be in the next year, so committing to be in one place for many years — even if it would mean being with their friends — is impossible.
What, too, does this mean for faith development? Away from the Catholic school environment many knew for most of their lives, and often not finding a steady parish environment in their nearly constant state of transition, many of my friends have struggled spiritually. Our faith is not to be — cannot be — lived on one’s own, though most of us are no longer living with the family and friends who provided spiritual support to us in the past. No one is “making” people in their mid-20s go to Mass, and when they delay marriage and a family, they also may be delaying what has been for many people an impetus to go back to church. How, then, does the church reach 20-somethings today?
As much I wish I had an easy answer, I do not really know. But, the fact that members of Generation Me still experience a heart-felt desire for community leads me to think that helping to form community must be part of the equation. While my generation has been told that we can do whatever we want, some of us are realizing that anything satisfying can only be done with others, with a community.
Reconnecting young adults with the church provides many challenges, but the fact that the church is intrinsically communal also illustrates the opportunity for the church to provide something that all of us, even Generation Me, desire.
(Michael Rossmann is a graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. In August, he professed vows in the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits.)