My Aunt Teresa died at the age of 85 on September 13. She had not been a churchgoer since her teens. One day, several months before she died, I cautiously asked her what sorts of funeral instructions she would like to leave for her children to follow? Teresa was puzzled. What did I mean? Do you want to have a service at all? Something at the funeral home? At a local Protestant church in town? No! Teresa’s voice suddenly got stronger. I’m Catholic. I’ve always been Catholic. I want to be buried from the church where I was baptized. And so it was.
I was stunned at Teresa’s sense of herself, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been. Catholic roots run deep and a lack of weekly practice does not always imply that a person has abandoned her faith. It has taken another path.
While Christianity is still the largest religion in our country, individuals are moving from place to place along the spectrum. Others are simply getting off, that is to say, choosing to be unaffiliated with any faith tradition.
Some leave their church because they disagree with the teachings of their faith on certain points. Some have been alienated by a priest or a member of the pastoral staff. Others no longer feel welcome because of the life choices they have made. Some may come back. Many others might not.
But what goes on in the hearts of those who apparently don’t return? Do their hearts ever burn with love for God? Does Jesus still mean anything to them? Where do they find meaning in life?
These are not questions easily resolved over a cup of coffee at a busy Starbucks. Both questions and the leaving are typically not quick for believers. I believe that, if the church has meant anything to them at all, the hurt must be personally deep for people to go, and the departures hurtful for family members and friends. The pews are more and more empty in Mainline Protestant Churches and in the Roman Catholic Church. But are the people who “left” really gone?
In fact, some are, notably Millennials (people born between 1982 and 1999) who have a wide range of faith choices to consider. Some were never baptized, their parents wanting them to make up their minds when they got older. The ones who were baptized haven’t always been encouraged to love the church, its rituals and seasons. Jesus is not well known to them. What would entice them to come back?
Yet Millennials admit to a “God Hunger.” They also strongly desire to experience community connections. They desperately want the world to be a better place, yet the options of ways and means are too many and too frustrating. Millennials sample practices from many faiths. Finding a spiritual home is a work in progress for them.
There are ways that God calls to people – older and younger—to draw close. Some of us only recognize traditional ways: prayer, sacraments, Mass, the authorized moral life. But God can act wherever and however the person needs to have the pain assuaged, the realizations about life become more clear, love more abundant in their life. God offers a sense of wonder at the cosmos, and human solidarity to lead us pilgrims along the way. These are not lost on Millennials and others called “Nones.”
As for the Church, to borrow from Pope Francis: Believers should wear church membership as a loose-fitting garment, not a straightjacket.
~ Sister Joan Sobala