Students attending a weekday Mass at St. Joseph's College of the University of Alberta. However, one out of two young adults raised in the Catholic faith no longer attend church.


Students attending a weekday Mass at St. Joseph's College of the University of Alberta. However, one out of two young adults raised in the Catholic faith no longer attend church.

February 3, 2014

Where are the young Catholic people? One out of two of those who were raised in the faith no longer attend Mass.

They are not switching to other churches but when asked about their faith, they call themselves spiritual but not religious. Some call themselves agnostic or atheists.

"In Canada we are losing a lot of them during childhood and the youth years," lamented James Penner, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge.

"Where do they go? They go to work, they go to partying, they sleep in Saturday night and don't come Sunday morning. They go to sports and music. There are lots of things competing with their faith community involvement."

The very new word in 2013 is "selfie," Penner pointed out. "It's all about me rather than it's all about God. So the pressure on the young people is intense and we don't realize that their faith is getting secularized."

Moreover, parents are not modeling the faith and so young adults are taking their cues from secular society.

Immigration, Penner thinks, is what is helping the Catholic Church to stay revitalized. "Filipinos and Latin Americans are coming in with Catholic faith, but once you look at the second and third generation, that secularizing influence is hitting the children."

Penner, a Mennonite, is the author of Hemorrhaging Faith, a 2011 study of young people commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. In the study, he and his team interviewed 72 people, aged 18-34, who were raised Christian. Using the insights from the interviews, Angus Reid conducted a survey answered by 2,049 people in the same age group. The sample ranged from Roman Catholic to Evangelical.

In an interview Jan. 24, Penner said the thinking that "once Catholic, always Catholic" is no longer valid.

"Our research is not suggesting they will all come back when they (marry and) have children," he said. "The secularizing influences are so strong in Canada at the present time they are switching to 'spiritual, but not religious' to 'I have no religion' to 'agnostic' or 'atheist.'"

Young people nowadays want to know if faith works for them personally. The way they answer that question is 'Do my own prayers get answered? Do I feel the love of God?'

If they don't feel their prayers are being answered, they simply leave, said Penner. "A sociologist by the name of Christian Smith says millennials are picking up a mutant faith because they view God as the divine lifeguard on the beach," he said. "I get to play my life however I want but when I am I trouble God will bail me out.

"So what happens is God doesn't bail him out because he doesn't play by our rules, and they think then that the faith doesn't work. They walk away because they have not been trained well for the dark night of the soul."

The second question young people ask is "Does the faith work for my mom and dad?"

What they find is many boomers who grew up with a Catholic or Protestant faith have actually bought into the capitalist consumer story themselves and they are not living by the faith. "The kids pick it up and say, 'faith doesn't seem that important to mom and dad, why should it be that important to me?'"

The parish plays a vital role in retaining young people. If young people feel valued in a parish they will want to stay and get involved. If they feel isolated, lonely and undervalued, leaving seems like a good option.

"If there is warmth in my parish, if there is vibrancy, I should see it," young people say. "It should be making a difference in my community; it should be making a difference in my own life. It should be touching the world."

Penner quoted a young girl who said that in her parish "everybody leaves their coats on (during Mass). We don't even know each other. They just come, get served and leave."

This means, no value is placed on socializing. "The young people say, 'Hey, if this really is a colony of heaven, we should feel it. It should make that level of difference in our lives' and if it does, they stay."

The Bible is also important to young people. "If they see the Bible as an amazing love story that they get to enter, they want in," Penner said.

"But if they see it as a set of rules they must subscribe to in order to stay out of hell, they want out."


Getting young people back and keeping them in Church is a job for the home, the parish and the school, stressed Penner. "We have to give them opportunities to serve and we have to value them and motivate them."

When our children say they want to quit school because they have a part-time job or because they want to play hockey or to party, parents immediately put their foot down and say, "No; you have to get an education."

The same does not happen when children want to stop going to church, lamented Penner. "Why do we accept that faith formation is not as important as public school education?"

Added Penner: "It's something that has to start at infancy, which means part of what we need to do is re-educate ourselves as to how important this is."

Andrew Papenbrock, the director of Youth Evangelization for the Edmonton Archdiocese, believes Penner's views are essentially correct.

"The biggest gap that's growing is the young people who don't believe and who are not affiliated to a Church," he said. "So when we talk about evangelization, what we are seeing is that some of the people we are dealing with have never heard the Gospel message."

Papenbrock said in many cases the young people stopped going to Church because their parents stopped. When they get to middle school or high school they don't see the relevance of going to church.

"They are not even leaving, as much as they never came," he said.

This gives us a chance to re-evaluate our communities, he added. "Are we a welcoming community? Do the youth walk in and feel they want to become a part of it? We know that youth want to belong and we know that young parents want a place for their kids to belong to. So how are we doing that?

Papenbrock said given that it is parents who set the priorities for their youngsters in middle school, "the challenge for us as churches is to reach out to the parents and the family together."

We have to start by welcoming families in the parish, he said. At a recent conference he learned that one-third of a youth minister's time should be spent working with teens and another third should be spent developing relationships with parents. The other third should be spent developing the leaders within the Church.

Mike Landry, a former parish youth minister who now serves as chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, agrees with much of what Penner says.

"Your family forms so much of who you are, like it or not," he says. "If the family you are in has no sense of belief, it is a lot harder to come up with it on your own. There is the odd student who will come to faith without parental support but without some kind of a family it is very had to keep them (in church)."


Landry says young people fail to see the relevance of Church in their lives. "They come to church and from their perspective it is the same thing every week; the homily is not really relevant to them, they don't understand what's going on in the Mass, they don't know what the Eucharist is, they see the Church as just a bunch of rules telling them all the thing that they can't do that they really want to do right now.

"Most importantly, they don't feel loved here, they don't feel welcomed."

Landry said some young people have come back to Church because somebody significant, be it a priest or deacon or a lay leader, has shown them some love and some care.

One resource in the Edmonton Archdiocese is the youth camps where young people get personal attention and love.

"The camps spend weeks at a time doing that with young people." Many of the young people who have spent time at Our Lady of Victory Camp end up exploring religious life.

"They get that they are loved, they get that they are wanted, they get it that the Church is relevant," Landry said. "But when you go from parish to parish it can be one parish where it's wonderful, alive and vibrant, and it can be another parish where it's not."

"We are not intentionally reaching out to young people; we are not intentionally making sure that they are welcome. If a teenager comes into the church and has piercings and coloured hair, who is going to talk to them?

"Do we make a point of talking to them and making them feel welcome? That is intentional youth ministry."

Landry says parish youth ministry should be "tied to the schools because the young people are here and we can have relevant conversations with them about their faith." He also recommended parishes recognize young people's gifts and "give them a role."


In the experience of Brittney White, a former parish youth minister who now serves as instructor and chaplain at St. Joseph's College at the U of A, "Young people leave the Church because they don't see their value in the Church and they don't feel welcome in a relational type of way."

White said young people "don't see the point of sitting there for an hour. They want to see the results of what they do and how their faith affects their lives."

In this technological age, young people are used to getting quick results and they can visibly see everything in front of their face with the click of a button. "They are like 'What's the point of this, giving up this hour if I am not seeing quick results?'"

On top of that, "People aren't asking them what do you need in this Church? They are expected to be involved in a tradition that they don't understand."

One thing that the Church has to do, White said, is "start to look at (youth) ministry as a professional ministry because if our leaders lack theological training and solid answers for the youth, they'll never buy into it because they are not getting the truth of the Church.

"So I think we need to invest more in strong leadership for youth, in theological training program for youth."

Asked for clarification, White said: "We have to professionalize the (youth) ministers that already exist and provide them with leadership training so they have the ability to train young people as leaders.

"That's where I think the Church is missing the mark a little bit. We are employing 17, 18, 19-year-old youth ministers, which is good, (because) they can rally a lot of kids together. But at certain point that fizzles out because they don't have answers to the deep theological questions because they are not trained to know them and that's not their fault."


She recommended youth ministers obtain the Canadian youth ministry certificate "because I think what it does is it teaches people how to do comprehensive youth ministry." They will come to understand the different aspects of Church and what's needed for a strong community.

White said many young people today are lonely, "so I think (we should be) creating relational communities where young people have the opportunity to be known." She also recommended what she termed "intergenerational ministry, where young people are getting wisdom from the older generation. It's kind of that mutual collaboration in ministry."

"Small faith communities and small groups and friendship building are what builds good youth programs," White said. "It is where they feel like they are not just going to Church but they are going to Church because they relate to people; they feel are getting something out of it."