Merry Christmas to all! I enjoyed a lovely noon Christmas Mass at St. Stanislaus, my home parish here in Buffalo New York. “Christmas is the feast of God’s becoming human,” stressed Father Mariusz Dymek in his homily. “We celebrate that God is not just an abstract entity, but an actual human person we can talk to.”
As much as I enjoyed the beautiful Mass, the gorgeous church dressed up in all its Christmas finery, and the organ music, I was nonetheless disappointed by the attendance – or lack thereof. Alas, thirty worshipers at a Christmas Day Mass does not bode well for the future of this parish. Unfortunately, low membership is a concern for many East Side churches.
There are many reasons for the lack of support of these parishes, but unfortunately, one of them seems all too simple: young people aren’t going to church. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) have been diagnosed as the least religious generation in US history; however, the next generation is less religious yet. “None” continues to be the fastest growing religion. Most of the people I attended Catholic elementary and high school in the 1990s and early 2000’s no longer attend church services regularly; in the Christian college I teach, fewer than half of the students identify as practicing Christians.
Sociologists, philosophers and others have devoted a lot of time and energy into analyzing the causes of this drop in religiosity – a change that, if it continues, will eventually leave the US looking much like Northern Europe. Indeed, in his brilliant if length tome A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the society we inhabit now – where a wide variety of perspectives compete for attention, with unbelief often the default position – began five hundred years ago, when the Protestant Reformation took the first steps toward making religion a private, personal affair rather than a public one.
Others cite general economic prosperity, higher levels of education, access to information and different worldviews through the Internet, and a growing distrust of authority as reasons for religion’s decline. As a highly educated, relatively well-off Internet junkie who looks upon many traditional institutions with suspicion, I am here to argue that religion is still relevant toward anyone seeking to lead a meaningful life. My Christmas message to my fellow millennials and those younger is this: give faith a chance.
My own story with religion is complex enough. I was a cradle Catholic who began questioning the faith around the age of fourteen or so. After attending a very secular liberal arts college, I began to drift away; prayer became an infrequent habit, as did church attendance. My return to faith began a few years after college, when I was teaching at a private Catholic high school in Nicaragua. The challenges of teaching and the example of a very devout roommate led me back. This commitment intensified when I moved to Toronto and entered the very secular world of a Ph.D. program in the humanities. Faith seemed a necessary antidote to the various secular worldviews I encountered around me – worldviews that, for all their merits, seemed to be missing something important.
After attending the university Newman Centre for a few years, I discovered a dynamic, multicultural, multigenerational parish called Our Lady of Lourdes. Led by Jesuits, this parish offered inspiring homilies about God’s love – homilies that occasionally dared to take a stand on controversial issues. People came from far and wide to hear this message. I would leave the Mass inspired and carry the message with me throughout my week.
To my fellow millennials who were raised in the Catholic Church, I would urge you to remember that this two thousand year-old faith tradition is more than a collection of rituals and rules. Get an annotated Bible and go back to read the Gospels – you will be amazed at what a revolutionary Jesus was, how eagerly he sought to turn social orders upside down. Read the prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, if nothing else to take in the poetry of their language. Watch Romero, the 1989 biopic about Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest whose devotion to the poor ultimately cost him his life in 1980. Read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, a writer and once-atheist who was inspired by the Christian message to help the urban poor in Depression-era New York – and whose example still inspires many. Read The Confessions of St. Augustine – arguably the Western World’s first autobiography – and notice how modern and easy to relate to this young man’s concerns are. Read Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil – a philosopher with the tremendous power of bridging atheist and religious perspectives. Then, visit St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy or the Response to Love Center at St. Adalbert to see the good work taking place there. See how faith can be transformed into action. Visit houses of worship of religions other than your own; learn about how people live their faith each day. And, make sure to talk to a nun, and ask her what ministries she’s been involved with. Nuns are great.
However, just as I ask the young to consider returning to the faith, I would also ask our elders to be patient and understanding. I often hear a sense of dismay in the attitudes of older people toward the young. “They don’t follow their obligations,” one 70+ parishioner of St. Stanislaus said a few years ago at a town hall meeting. Alas, it is true: the vast majority of people in my generation and younger do not view religious practice as a moral obligation. But that does not mean we are uninterested.
A few Dyngus Days ago, when there was a line going halfway around the block to get into St. Stanislaus Social Hall, I mentioned to a parishioner that we need to find a way to get all those people to come to church. At first he shook his head wryly. “They’re just interested in beer. They won’t come to church.” This is not the attitude that builds a parish. If millennials are given a reason to come – a positive one, such as the possibility of leading a more meaningful life, rather than a negative one like fear of hellfire – then we will indeed come.
To the clergy and parish leaders, know that good, thoughtful preaching can still draw a crowd. Draw on the Church’s 2000-year-old intellectual history as well as your own personal experiences to craft engaging homilies that will resonate with a diverse audience. Make us laugh; make us cry. Tell stories. Your job is not to entertain us, but it is to make God’s word come alive, to show us that the Bible is not just a stale book of myths, commandments and letters, but a living entity that reveals God’s presence to us. Look on your congregation with mercy. Welcome everyone – no matter how they are dressed or what the color of their skin is. Be especially welcoming to women, who for so long have had their voices muted in the Church and in society as a whole. Do not begrudge those who only attend Mass occasionally. Eventually they will be drawn in, just as I was.
If we want to see the Broadway-Fillmore area rejuvenated, our faith communities are central to that process. These beautiful churches are more than just architectural gems from an idealized past. As the ongoing work at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy and the Response to Love Center show us, they have the potential to become vital spiritual centers for the diverse community that is the East Side of Buffalo today. But they can only begin this transformation if we, the younger generations, continue to support them. As a Catholic Christian who has lost and found faith many times, I will tell you that I can’t think of a more meaningful way to live my life, and you might find the same. Merry Christmas to all.