By Fr. Ross Epping
Millennials, those of us born between 1980 and the early 2000s, are often brushed aside by older generations as being any or all of these three things — too lazy, too progressive or too focused on our devices. Research and reality, however, paint a much different picture.
While being a generation that does devote a great deal of time to technological advancements, Millennials hold record-high levels of community involvement. Deeply devoted to helping one another in different communal aspects, Millennials also have a much higher attraction to public service jobs than the generations that came before. And while we, as a general whole, tend to be a more progressive generation, this does not mean that we fit comfortably into one political ideal. In fact, it’s not about ideals at all for Millennials. Instead, it’s about practice. It’s about how we, as an entire people, live out what we preach; it’s about being honest, and most importantly, it’s about being authentic.
According to Pew Research, in the past six years, favor among Millennials regarding institutional religion has dropped 18 percent. Just over 50 percent of us believe that institutional religion is important to our lives. Why this dramatic drop in a short period of time? Two factors stand above the rest:
First, there was the timid response on behalf of the Catholic Church in regards to the child abuse scandal. Now, we can argue over the fact that in the grand scheme of things priest abuse of minors makes up only a small percentage of total abusers but, by making that argument, we overlook the fact that the Catholic Church was placed on a different spectrum than other people and institutions. People placed their complete trust in us, believing that the church was a safe place. That trust was broken and so entered public views of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and rightfully so.
The second factor has to do with politics. Millennials view the world of politics with a general uneasiness. The entire system is rife with dishonesty and incivility. We all know it to be true, we’ve seen it, we’ve read it. But here’s where we, as the church, get into trouble. While the Catholic Church in America, mandated by the bishops of the United States, cannot endorse any political party or figure, this has not kept some priests and religious from publicly condemning or supporting one candidate over another. Instead of taking the route of preaching and teaching the Gospel, the truths of our faith and the love of Christ, some church figures have taken to social media to make their “opinions” known, all done in the name of being a “Good Catholic.” Thus, tweets such as this one from Fr. Petri, OP: “Senator @timkaine: Do us both a favor. Don’t show up in my communion line. I take Canon 915 seriously. It’d be embarrassing for you and for me” become the face of the Catholic Church, for as we all know, we Millennials are deeply devoted to our devices, and so, to social media.
Is this the way in which we want to evangelize? By using 140-character sound-bites full of anger and spite? We are gaining absolutely zero souls with this form of evangelization. People, especially young people, have got to know that we are for them, not against them. That we love them, that we care about them, that they are desired by God. If we want to be effective and authentic disciples of Christ, then we must start at the beginning. We meet people exactly where they’re at in life. We walk with them, talk with them, love them. We gain their trust, little by little. This is the only way we are going to bring Millennials back into the faith. It will not be done by shoving the truths of our faith in front of their faces. It will only be done through accompaniment.
(Fr. Ross Epping is a parochial vicar for St. John Vianney Parish, Bettendorf).