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Posted October 4, 2010

Priest seeks to clarify complex identity,
faith lives of young adults

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Passionist Father Robin Ryan used to think he had a handle on how most young adults thought and acted.

But "the more I speak with young adults, and the more studies I read, the more I realize that this is a topic of significant complexity," he told a recent invitation-only vocations symposium in Chicago. "Young adults -- like middle-aged and older adults -- are complex and often quite divergent in their views about most things, including faith, spirituality and the church."

With that in mind, Father Ryan, former director of the Chicago vocations discernment program Catholics on Call and vicar provincial for his order, set out to help symposium participants understand what might attract young adults to religious life today -- and what might make them turn away from a vocation.

The symposium brought together vocations directors, Catholic educators, major superiors, diocesan personnel, parents, young adult and campus ministers, younger religious, media and communications experts, and church researchers and statisticians.

It was a follow-up to a study of recent vocations to religious life conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the National Religious Vocation Conference. The study, released in August 2009, found that religious communities following more traditional practices have better success attracting younger members.

Adopting a phrase coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, Father Ryan said young people today experience a stage of "emerging adulthood" characterized by a longer period of vocational and career exploration and a "lingering temptation to keep postponing commitment."

"Even though emerging adulthood is a time of opportunity and hope, it also poses daunting challenges," he said. "And those of us who are concerned about assisting young adults in their vocational discernment and inviting them to consider consecrated life need to be in touch with the challenges they face."

Father Ryan disputed the popular description of the faith of most young adults as "spiritual but not religious," saying that although it applies to "a minority component of the emerging adult population" it also reflects the limited choices offered in most surveys to those not affiliated with a specific religious tradition.

"They are given the choice of designating themselves either as 'atheistic/agnostic' or as 'spiritual,'" he said. "But 'spiritual' can mean just about anything one wants it to mean."

He said most young people who were raised Catholic continue to identify themselves as Catholics, "even when their practice of the faith is sporadic."

"Like their peers from other religious traditions, young adult Catholics are comfortable constructing a Catholic identity on their own terms," Father Ryan said. "In a consumer culture that prizes unlimited choice in everything from smart phones to types of coffee, young adult Catholics are at home selecting elements within Catholic teaching and practice that they wish to comprise their own identity."

But many young adult Catholics, even those active in the church, lack the "innate sense of being Catholic in the larger world" that was instilled in older Catholics by cultural phenomena that included everything from abstaining from meat on Fridays to participating in rosary processions and CYO sports, he said.

The interest shown by many young adult Catholics in traditional practices such as eucharistic adoration, the rosary and even the Latin Mass should be seen not as "a throwback" but as "a discovery of aspects of our rich and diverse tradition with which they were previously unfamiliar and which they find helpful -- at least for a time -- in their relationship with God," he added.

Like other speakers at the symposium, Father Ryan emphasized the study's finding that young adults find the use of political rhetoric in the church -- such as "conservatives" and "liberals" or "orthodox" and "dissenters" -- "to be very off-putting."

"It is a rhetoric that can easily dismiss others who hold views different from our own without really understanding their positions or seeking insight into the concerns and aspirations that motivate them," he said. "This is where many active young adult Catholics register their protest -- explicitly or silently -- and feel disconnected from the older generation of Catholics, including those whom they may be visiting or living with in religious community."

He recommended that those concerned about vocations provide good mentors for young adults and help those considering a religious vocation to connect with peers with similar aspirations.

"Listen closely to young adults to discover the values and concerns that drive them," Father Ryan added. "This engagement should include the willingness to discuss honestly the 'disconnect' issues with which young adult Catholics often struggle," such as sexual morality issues, women's roles in the church, clergy sexual abuse and financial scandals.