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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For These Millennials, Faith Trumps Relativism

Crowds of young people throng the streets, singing, dancing and waving flags from around the world.

By Anna Williams

When a diminutive figure emerges in a white car, they erupt, jockeying for the best view of this international superstar. A rock idol? A marquee athlete? A political prodigy?

Nope: an old man — more scholar than celebrity — smiling shyly to acknowledge the adulation.

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive this week in Madrid for a week-long celebration marked by up to a million teenage and twenty-something Catholics as World Youth Day. The international event gives young Catholics a chance to learn about and practice their faith together: Think Mass, lectures, prayer and more Mass.

But this is not your average religious conference. The music is loud; the hours, late; the attendees, young, diverse, exuberant.

The whole spectacle might understandably confuse those outside of the church: Why would these young people belong to, much less celebrate, such a backward, oppressive institution as the Roman Catholic Church? And why do they seem to find Pope Benedict, 84, not just endearing but also inspiring? The answers to these questions lie in the discontent and desires of a peculiar subset of the millennial generation.

Tradition returns

At first glance, studies such as Pew's 2010 report "Religion Among the Millennials" seem to indicate that young Catholics (age 18-29) exemplify their generation's tendency toward religious indifference. To wit, they are less likely to attend Mass weekly, less likely to pray daily, and less likely to consider religion "very important" than Catholics 30 and older. Yet the millennial Catholics who do practice and value their faith are doing something odd: They are spearheading a resurgence of traditional Catholic liturgy and disciplines that their parents and grandparents had largely abandoned.

A recent study of Catholic religious orders confirmed this trend. Sister Mary Bendyna, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and director of the Georgetown University-affiliated center that conducted the study, summarized the findings for The New York Times. Compared with older generations, she said, millennials who consider becoming priests or nuns are "more attracted to a traditional style of religious life, where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together, praying the Liturgy of the Hours (the church's daily cycle of Scripture readings and prayers) together." "They are much more likely to say fidelity to the church is important to them," she added. "And they really are looking for communities where members wear habits," the age-old garb of monks and nuns.

A similar desire for traditional religious practice has developed in recent years among many young Protestants, Jews and Muslims, according to a 2007 analysis by the U.S. News and World Report. Evangelical Christians, for example, are reciting the Nicene Creed, a fourth century expression of Christian doctrine, and offering weekly Communion services, while some once dismissed both practices as remnants of ritualistic and spiritually dead Catholicism. Jews — and not only Orthodox Jews— are obeying dietary and religious laws more closely and using more Hebrew in synagogues. Muslims are more strictly embracing the Islamic calendar of prayer and fasting. This surprising cross-denominational trend raises a broader question: What attracts today's youth to such "old-fashioned" orthodoxy?

Substance and sacrifice

As a member of this strange millennial cohort, I have wondered this myself. I think the answer comes down to this: 1960s-style liberation — from moral codes, family obligations, religious commitments — has betrayed us.

Sometime in the past century, a new creed emerged, saying everyone should make his own creed. This tolerant, open-minded ethos seemed to promise freedom: safe sex with many partners, drugs and alcohol galore and quick, no-fault divorce. So our Baby Boomer parents partied hard, yet in so many cases left us only the hangover: heartbreak, addiction and broken homes, plus rising rates of teenage depression and suicide. 

The anything-goes religion of the late 20th century cannot prevent nor even explain these consequences. (After all, if I'm OK, you're OK, and we can do whatever we want, why are so many people unhappy?) When every member of a society does whatever makes him feel good, the inevitable results are not personal fulfillment and communal harmony but selfishness and social breakdown.

With these realizations in mind, many millennials reject the assumptions of 1960s liberationists in favor of something more substantial: the creeds, practices and moral codes that defined religious life for centuries. Unlike reductionistic scientism or vague romanticism, traditional religions propose specific, compelling explanations for the world in front of us — broken, fraught with suffering, enslaved to sin, but nonetheless revealing glimpses of beauty and greatness.

More intellectually coherent than relativism, orthodoxy is also more demanding. It makes us place others above ourselves, the truth above what we'd like to be true, the fight for virtue above the pursuit of pleasure. In a word, it preaches sacrifice.

These themes will be prominent in Madrid this week, as Catholics of all nationalities gather for prayer and festivity. So why are they happy to be Catholic? Because they have concluded that the church's teachings are, in fact, true, and because they've recognized that true freedom lies in self-sacrifice. Far from repressive, such realizations are — as millennials of other faiths can attest — thrilling.

Pope Benedict knows that young people ponder these matters and desire more than what today's culture offers. When he speaks to them, he doesn't water it down. His voice is quiet, even gentle, but he's not afraid to challenge his congregation. And he is right to do so: Young people don't need another meaningless affirmation of their worth. They want an explanation of how the world is and a mission that involves changing it. Their question is no longer, "What will make me feel good?" but "What will make me a good person, and how can I do good for the world?"

Whatever you believe, you have to admit: They're asking the right questions.

Anna Williams is an editorial page intern at USA TODAY and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan. She has attended World Youth Day twice: in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and Sydney, Australia, in 2008.

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