A new study suggests that young adult Catholics ages 18-35 engage in practices to bolster their faith, but tend to do so outside their parish.
Those activities often take the form of small Christian communities, according to the study, issued in November by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University in Washington.
"Most of the people who are involved in faith groups are not involved in a known national organization" such as Cursillo, the Knights of Columbus and similar outfits, said Mark Gray, one of three co-authors of the study, "Faith and Spiritual Life of Catholics in the United States."
Rather, he added, "it's a collection of friends, it might be in a neighborhood community, it might be on a dorm floor."
"The biggest surprise is how boldly young adult Catholics are participating in their faith life outside the parish," Gray said. "Most research and commentary outside of data collection is that young adults are so inactive. In one way, that's right. They're disconnected from their parish ... but they're finding ways to practice it (their faith) in groups."
When planning for the study started in 2019, "we didn't know there was going to be a pandemic," Gray said, but CARA managed to "tweak it a bit."
The coronavirus pandemic, though, may have done little to deter young adults from their established spiritual routine.
"It was much easier for Catholics to carry on these practices -- their faith outside the parish," Gray told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 1 phone interview. "It was something they were doing before, and we assume they'll continue to do it in the future."
"Overall, 60% of Catholic young adults, ages 18 to 35, in the United States indicated that they participate in a faith-related group outside of attending Mass at their parish," the 181-page study said.
"Prior to the pandemic, 55% of those participating in a Catholic community or group were active in it at least once a month. About one in 10 were active more than once a week," it said, adding that among this cohort, 65% engaged in prayer during their meetings, the only activity that registered a majority of responses.
Other activities, in descending order of frequency, were socializing (36%), reading and discussing Scripture (30%), faith sharing (29%), group silence (23%), discussing spirituality (19%), raising money or collecting donations (18%), recreational group activities (15%), directly serving others (15%) or the Eucharist (14%).
CARA undertook the study on its own initiative; Gray said no Catholic organization commissioned it.
"No one was coming to us," he added. "There had been one previous study in the 1990s," and that did not resemble the scope of the new report. "Our study was focused more on behavior -- 'what do you do' -- than based on 'how do you feel,'" he said.
The study found there are more young adults who participate in a faith group outside of the parish regularly than go to Mass at their parish church regularly. When asked why, top reasons they cited, according to Gray, were: "Older generations have too much influence in the parish. They also express discontent as to the roles of women available in the church. Those are things they're not comfortable with."
Other reasons cited by about a third of respondents, if not more, included the clerical sexual abuse scandal, the church's teachings on homosexuality and on birth control, "a feeling that the church is not open to dialogue with other religious faiths," and church teachings on divorce and remarriage.
Prior to the pandemic, 13% of Catholic young adults attended Mass at least once a week, the study said, while 21% attend Mass less than weekly but at least once a month, 31% attended Mass a few times a year, and 36% say they rarely or never attend Mass.
In addition 73% of respondents agree "somewhat" or "strongly" that they can be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday, while 55% said they do not consider it a sin to miss Mass on Sunday. The latter figure came in second to "busy schedule" as the top reason for not going to weekly Mass.
"Interviewees feel strongly that the successful engagement of young people in SCCs (small Christian communities) requires that the church listens to these young people, supports them and gives them agency. The church needs to listen to young people, both on the institutional level and human level," the study reported.
"The church needs to meet them where they are -- rather than waiting for them in the parish -- reach out to them -- rather than wait for them to make the contact -- give them space to talk about things important to them, accompany them in their suffering and struggles, make them feel accepted, affirm them (and) encourage them."
CARA conducted a national survey of 2,214 Catholics ages 18-35 July-August 2020. The margin of error for survey results is plus or minus 3.59%.
Of the respondents, 44% were white non-Hispanic, 43% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian, 4% were Black or African American, and 3% were some other race or ethnicity. Fifty-three percent were female and 47% were male.
On average, CARA found, "a typical group meeting is attended by 19 to 22 people. Significantly, Hispanic groups meetings are attended by nine to 11 people more, on average, than other groups' meetings."
CARA also conducted interviews with respondents who agreed to be interviewed after being surveyed, and included some comments from the interviews in the study.
"Hispanics have a different way of proceeding with the matters of the church than Americans," one interviewee said. "For example, American(s) have too many rules, too many formalities, no spontaneity, everything is controlled."
Interviewees commented on the tenuous nature of small Christian communities within a parish. "Pastors get moved in and out every eight or 12 years. If your pastor was supportive of it and you got a new guy that came in that's not, they're gone then. So, like, everything rests unfortunately with whether or not a pastor that is put into your parish supports these movements," one interviewee said. Another remarked, "There's no system for continuity." A third said the bishop also needs to be supportive.
"The church has not invested nearly as much money in the accompaniment of young adults as it has with teenagers," one interviewee said.
In another interview, someone talked about why a small Christian community may not work.
"I asked a Catholic sister who coordinated the small Christian communities in New Jersey. And I asked her what's the biggest obstacle when you're forming these small Christian communities in (these) middle-class parishes? And her answer was shocking to me. Fear. Fear," the interviewee said.
"She said, 'People don't want to be vulnerable to their neighbors, to share their weaknesses.' I mean, weaknesses may be divorce, alcoholism, a child on drug abuse," the interviewee continued. "They don't like to do that and they feel that if they're pressured into these small Christian communities, people are sharing what we call their vulnerability and their weaknesses. She said that's, for many middle-class whites, (why) they want to avoid that."