Church and New Breed of Teen Embrace at Toronto Gathering

July 28, 2002 | By John Rivera

Melissa Bands, a bubbly Parkville teen-ager with a blond ponytail, spent part of her summer vacation helping out at a day camp for inner-city children.

During spring break, she went south—not to the beach bacchanalia of Florida, but on a mission trip to El Salvador. And last September, she shepherded five vanloads of clothing she collected from parishioners at St. Ursula Roman Catholic Church to a homeless men’s shelter.

“My parish is full of young people who do things like this all the time,” said Bands, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. “I don’t think I’m very rare.” Bands has come to this city on the banks of Lake Ontario for World Youth Day, joining hundreds of thousands of other young Catholics, many of whom share her passion for social justice and community service.

The weeklong celebration culminates today with a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, who at 82 is clearly ailing but is energized in the presence of young people.

The teen-agers gathered in Toronto are members of what demographers call the “millennials,” and they are defying cynics who expect them to be another generation of slackers.

This group, which includes those born since 1982, has an optimistic, can-do attitude. Its members volunteer in their communities, value the group above the individual, and are drawn to traditions of ages past.

“As a group, Millennials are unlike any other youth generation in living memory,” wrote Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book, Millennials Rising, one of the first works to profile this latest cohort.

“They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse,” they wrote. “More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct.”

Howe and Strauss point to federal statistics that show steep declines in teen homicide, violent crime, abortion and teen pregnancy. A survey by religious pollster George Barna found that 9 of 10 teens describe themselves as happy, responsible, self-reliant and optimistic about their future.

Other surveys show that an overwhelming majority of teens say they prefer group activities—whether it’s community service or church, or the movement toward dress codes and uniforms in school.

Youth ministers who work with millennials report many of the same trends.

“I think this group doesn’t believe there’s anything they can’t solve,” said D. Scott Miller of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. “They look at the twin towers falling down or the (clergy sexual abuse) scandals of the church and don’t perceive them as insurmountable problems.”

Clearly, such generalizations can’t describe a generation in its entirety. And researchers warn that it’s risky to profile a group that is so young, its members still forming their beliefs and values.

But even at this early stage, many who study such trends say today’s generation of teen-agers exudes a spirit of optimism and activism. If that is true about millennials as a group, it is an even more apt description of those who traveled here for World Youth Day, who are more likely to be involved in their churches and youth groups.

Many here say they are horrified and embarrassed by the clergy sex abuse scandal that has shaken American Catholicism. But for millennials like Dana Perzynski, 17, a freshman at the University of Maryland, it is no reason to abandon faith, as she has heard of some adults doing.

“It is a big deal, but I think they’re taking it to extremes,” she said.

For Cindi Howard, 21, a Harford Community College student, there is no conceivable alternative. “I can’t imagine not being Catholic,” she said. “This is my life. To leave the church would be like not breathing. It keeps me safe. It keeps me grounded.”

Patrick Sprankle, a youth minister at St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, said he is “finding young people rising to the occasion and saying, ‘We’re the church. Whereas mistakes were made and awful things happened, we are still the church and God is still important.’”

“I heard somebody say the other day that we’re the young church of today, not the church of the future,” said Bands, the girl from Parkville. “We know we can do things now. We don’t have to wait till we’re older.”

Not that young Catholics accept everything the church teaches without question.

Marc Parisi, an 18-year-old sophomore at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, admits that he struggles with the church’s absolute ban on abortion.

“There are things I don’t understand and a lot that I’m praying about,” he said. “But the church is a lot older than I am.”

One thing that appears to be attracting young people to the church is its centuries of tradition and ritual.

“On many Catholic campuses, the ones who are clamoring for a return to traditional rituals are the teen-agers, the younger students, not the grad students and certainly not the faculty,” said Tom Beaudoin, a 33-year-old Boston College theologian who writes about Generation X spirituality.

“They’re the ones who are interested in the rosary, in holy cards, in Eucharistic adoration,” he said, referring to a practice of silent meditation before a Communion wafer that to Catholics embodies Jesus.

Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, sees the embrace of tradition, if not of traditional denominations, among Protestant youths as well.

Kids are walking labyrinths like the ones found on the floors of medieval cathedrals, are praying the psalms like Benedictine monks, and have discovered the serenity of contemplative prayer.

“Eastern Orthodoxy is a big trend among young people. It’s tactile, it’s very experiential,” Dean said. “Anything Celtic is really hot. It’s not like they’re becoming Druids, but they like the arcane symbolism.”

And there is one church, Dean said, that is well-positioned to reach out to this generation.

“Catholics have a better grip on tradition than maybe anybody,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Catholic symbols and rituals have been proudly and boldly on display at the event in Toronto, starting with that quintessential Catholic symbol, the pope himself. With his flowing white vestment and shepherd’s staff, John Paul II is a figure of spiritual authority who traces his lineage to St. Peter.

“One of the reasons they like the pope,” Beaudoin said, “is his magnificent witness, the unselfconscious faith that he manifests by allowing himself to be so weak and frail and vulnerable in public, yet remain so humbly confident that God is with him.”

Other symbols of Catholicism also abound here. Priests and seminarians have circulated among the crowds, easily identifiable in their clerical collars. Crucifixes adorn necks as a statement on both fashion and faith. And the youths have eagerly participated in church rituals that haven’t been popular since their grandparents’ era.

Friday night, hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets of Toronto, following a wooden cross as part of the Stations of the Cross, a centuries-old ritual that recalls the suffering and death of Jesus. Singing religious hymns as they walked in the darkness, they stopped 14 times to pray while actors depicted the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection.

Last night, after a prayer vigil with the pope, many were planning to stay up all night in silent prayer before the Eucharist, another time-honored Catholic rite.

Papal biographer George Weigel said he sees a more serious embrace of the faith among a segment of Catholic youths, particularly those motivated enough to attend World Youth Day, who reject what has become a form of “Catholic Lite.”

“The old question of ‘How little do I have to believe?’ and ‘How little do I have to do?’ they find boring,” Weigel said. “I think this World Youth Day is both answer and antidote to all the awfulness of the past six months. The future of the Catholic Church is not misbehaving clergy and irresponsible bishops. The future of the Catholic Church is these kids, and that’s great news.”

And that is the message the millennials have heard from Pope John Paul II.

“It was so inspiring to hear the pope say, ‘You are the light of the world. You are the hope for the future,’” said Parisi, the Mount St. Mary’s student, who sported a head of spiked hair and wore a cross around his neck. “And we are. We are the light and, as young people, it’s important to remember.”