Young adults, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, include anyone age 18 to 39.
“It’s a very large age range,” acknowledged Megan Pepin, who has been the Archdiocese of Seattle’s director of Young Adult Ministry since 2018.
And it can encompass a lot of life stages and transitions: high school, college, grad school, work, marriage, raising children.
“All these major life transitions are places where we lose people” as a church, Pepin said. But while many young adults fall away, these years can also be a time of tremendous growth in the faith. Hence the importance of good young adult ministry.
A young adult herself, Pepin spent three years as a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students after graduating from college in 2013. With her husband, Steven, she also leads “Betrothed” marriage prep retreats at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center. They’re members of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. She sat down with Northwest Catholic to discuss the situation of young adult Catholics in today’s church.
What particular gifts do Catholic young adults bring to the church?
Pope Francis talks about how we’re not the future, we’re “the now of God.” So I think the gifts are this vibrancy and zeal. There’s obviously more energy in younger people, but also these generations — millennials and younger — they’ve been forced to choose to be practicing Catholics, so they’re committed in a way you wouldn’t be if it’s been your culture growing up.
If you’re in a very Catholic culture, you may have had a profound encounter with Jesus, but you may not have, and you can just kind of slide along. But these generations, they haven’t been sliding along. You can slide away, but you can’t slide along.
So they bring a different zeal because they’ve chosen it — and a bit of a missionary spirit too. They recognize that we can’t have an insular or inward-facing church. We need to have an outward-facing church, because we are small and we do need to have community, but we also need to be taking care of people and being out in the world.
What specific needs do you see in this demographic?
The specific need a lot of young people are searching for is good friendship. And so they go to church for the church, but often the first need is friends and community. They need to be welcomed and to find a home within the church. Especially because so many young adults are transplants, if they’re not welcomed, they’re either going to bop around until they find a place where they are welcomed, or they’re just not going to come back. And that’s a crazy reality that someone would just once-and-done the church, but I think it’s a very, very real dynamic.
And then they need to be fed. They need really solid stuff. They want theology and philosophy and church history and the saints. They want the hardcore stuff, more so than we give them credit for.
They also need to know the church is listening to them. They want to know that the church is actually hearing what young people are saying and that she’s responding.
This demographic is the social media generation, but they crave authentic relationships outside of their phones. And for so many people who are Catholic, most of their peers are not practicing any religion. So they go to church for friends because they want to have people around them who believe what they do. They want Catholic people to surround them and to strengthen them in their faith.
Photo: Stephen Brashear
What are some of the challenges facing Catholic young adults today?
Their peers’ not being interested. A huge challenge of living outside of a Christian culture is that you’re not getting it reinforced from any other place, so you really have to figure out how to live it on your own, in your own way.
Some of the other challenges here are the transplant mentality and the constant transitions. Most young professionals have multiple moves — within five years, you’re moving five times or you’re changing jobs a couple of times and you’re maybe getting married, and there’s all these life transitions.
So that is huge for this demographic. Their lives are constantly shifting, and so getting settled into a parish or a young adult community is a challenge. You could make a great friend and then six months later they’re moving to Minneapolis because they want to be closer to home or whatever. It’s just constantly shifting, there’s no stability.
Statistics suggest that young people are leaving the Catholic Church in droves — what’s your sense of why that is, and how concerned should we be?
We should be very concerned. I’m very concerned, but I also think every generation has its times like this. I know this is probably the worst in the last hundred years of the church, but there’s nothing new under the sun, right? The church has always stood against a lot of the culture, and we’re living in a time when that is definitely the case and where things are being polarized. But I also think that when this stuff happens, these amazing bright spots come up amid the darkness.
Every person in Western Washington who wears a cross or puts a bumper sticker on their car or in any way identifies themselves as Catholic — those are bright lights witnessing to the truth and witnessing to the church, that we are still here and still alive and we still care about our community.
As for why people are leaving, I think there are a lot of reasons. I think some people are disillusioned with the church because of the sex abuse crisis. I think some people kind of slide out of it — just this apathy about the faith. Everyone has their own reasons. But I tend to be an optimistic person, so even if the statistics are bad, I find a lot of hope because I meet so many people who are just amazing Catholics living their faith in such dramatic ways.
What should the church be doing to better engage and serve young adults?
I love this quote from St. Pope Paul VI where he says, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” And it reminds me of Pope Francis talking about creating a “culture of encounter.” It’s that authenticity that people are craving — just being real and sharing who is Jesus. Who is he to you? How is this whole thing relevant to your life? And I think the more we as a church — clergy, religious and laypeople — can understand who God is to us, the more we will be able to share that with other people and invite them in.
That’s a big thing for me, for people to see you as real, as a regular old person, because we are — but also see that there’s something different because we’re Catholic, right? And to be able to personally identify, like, why am I here? Why am I still doing this? And recommit ourselves, but also know our story enough to be able to share it with someone.
We need to have that sense of being witnesses within our church. As Archbishop Etienne has been saying a lot, we have to be a culture of evangelizing people. We have to be focusing on Jesus. That’s the only thing we need to do, and everything else follows from there.
Photo: Stephen Brashear
Are there any commonalities you’ve noticed among young Catholics who remain active in their faith?
I was just with a group of young adults, and we all shared our testimony of encounter with Christ, or whatever it was that changed that we became committed to Christ and his church. And there were two things I noticed from their testimonies.
One was that somebody invited them to go deeper. Whether they were in middle school or high school or college or out of college, somebody close to them invited them to do something that was a little bit outside their comfort zone, like go to adoration or a Bible study or just read about the faith. And then out of that invitation they encountered Christ — there was some moment or process of encounter and getting to know him.
For me it was in college: “Would you come to a Bible study?” “OK, sure.” I didn’t know what that was going to set me up for, but that changed my whole journey of faith — basically my whole life — from that one single invitation.
And then the second thing was that they had Catholic friends who surrounded them — they wanted people around them who loved Christ too.
I think a common thread also is that there’s just this depth of commitment to the faith that is different from even a generation ago.
What signs of hope do you see among Catholic young adults?
The biggest sign of hope to me is that people are still choosing to belong to the church, and I see it in my friends who are raising their kids to be more Catholic than they were.
Another sign of hope is the college students who are committed to the faith, especially at places like UW and Western Washington, these enormous public universities where you could be doing anything else, and yet you choose the faith. They’re a great sign of hope, and they’re going out into the world and doing amazing things because they’ve had to live so counter-culturally in college.
Read the Spanish version of this story.
Northwest Catholic - April 2020
Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at [email protected].
Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].