Youth and the church

Pedro A. Suarez, S.J.

Many adult Catholics wonder why it seems that so many young people today do not attend Mass on Sundays.  

Obviously, we cannot generalize and draw quick conclusions, since this is a matter that depends on many factors, including age, gender, the type of religious education and school they attend and whether their families are practicing Catholics or not.   

Any attempt to give easy answers is bound to overlook one or more conditions and one should center the issue on a simpler consideration:  what does a young baptized person, whose parents consider themselves Catholic, look for in the Catholic Church today? 

Suppose we consider a young person (male or female) between the ages of 14 and 25 who is a baptized Catholic.  Their willingness to attend mass on Sundays or not seems to depend on several factors:

  1. The example of the parents: whether they practice their faith and attend church or not.
  2. How welcoming their particular parish seems to them.
  3. How the practice of church attendance is related to the practice of faith in the home, school and work, outside of the church.
  4. What is the image that the Catholic Church presents to the young today.
  5. Other factors.

The example of the parents is very important, although it may not be definitive, especially after the young person is free from parental pressure to do one thing or the other, for example if he/she has his/her own car and is more or less independent of their parents’ choices.  However, early education is many times crucial.  If the home atmosphere is one of love, caring and respect, and mass attendance is part of their home routine, this example will positively reinforce the young person’s desire to follow in their footsteps and frequently go to church. 

Secondly, some parishes make the young person feel welcome and others do not.  Parishes that have youth groups, youth masses and retreats, with priests and deacons who prepare their liturgies and homilies well with the young in mind, are more prone to attract the young than those parishes where the whole emphasis seems to be on talking to the elderly and adult population.  No one, young or old, likes to be exposed Sunday after Sunday to longwinded and banal preaching devoid of theological content and with an emphasis on the Do’s and don’ts of the commandments.  If a young person, especially after 15-18 years old, does not feel welcome or that the Church does not speak to them in their language, will stop going to church or look for other ways to satisfy their spiritual need.

Thirdly, mass attendance is very much a part of Christian living and not an isolated event.  Living the commandments and the Christian ideals of love and service starts in the home and continues with life at school and in the circle of friends.  If life at home or at school is characterized by insults, screaming, and lack of respect among the members of the family, attendance at mass is hardly relevant. 

The image of the Church is also very important.  If the Church is seen merely as a financial institution bent on looking for money its image is distorted.  No wonder it is repellent to the young.   The recent public scandals and sins of the Church do not benefit anyone, but especially hurt the young, who are in a stage of forming their conscience and are debating a decision to be or not a member of the Church.

Attendance at mass also depends on other factors such as peer pressure (if my close friends go to mass, maybe I should go too), the negative effect of temptations offered by society today (Internet, cell phones, pornography, antireligious messages on the media, etc.)  On the positive side we should emphasize the good influence of priests and deacons who are open to the young and attract them through church activities and friendly encounters, the welcoming attitude of the adult members of the church community, etc.  

Girls should feel especially welcome and not perceive their local church as an all-male organization that has no place for them. 

Perhaps attendance at mass of the young is more a local problem than a global one.  There are parishes where there are almost no young people. But there are other parishes where many young are attending and we should look into what makes them more successful than others and learn from them.