Teenage Catholics are a small and shrinking group. But a researcher has found that they are bound together by a new understanding of sacred community
We have been worrying about young people in the Church for a long time. St Paul says to Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth”, and over the centuries each generation has expressed the same concerns about young people as their grandparents’ generation did about them. But now we really have reason to worry: the lack of young people at church in the UK not only represents a demographic time bomb but, as Benedict XVI told a group of young people in São Paulo, Brazil in 2007, “Without this young face, the Church would appear disfigured.”
The lack of data about young Catholics is shocking. We don’t know how many or how few young people we have in church each week, or what the long-term trends are. We don’t know the impact of immigration on attendance at church or what the transfer rate for religious practice is from first-generation migrants to their children. We know very little about the impact of local Catholic schools on parish life, or of local or diocesan youth provision on how young people live out their faith. If we are serious about keeping young people in the Church, we could start by gathering more information on these questions.
Amid the doom and gloom, however, there is another question to be asked of young people. Not “Why don’t they stay?”, but “Why do they come at all?” Anthropologists marvel at the Church’s continued existence after 2,000 years. According to Pew Research, the number of Catholics worldwide has grown from 190 million to 1.2 billion members in the last 100 years. What is at play here?