Communion Across Generations: Intergenerational Dialog; Another Take on the Gen-X & Millennial Catholic Debacle

The 2011 Munrion Lecture by Sister Patricia Wittberg, SC, author and professor of Sociology at Indiana/Purdue University is both an excellent introduction to the sociological idea of “generational” cultures and an interesting perspective on the Gen-X & Millennial “Catholic debacle” (to use the term of Mark Silk).  Most importantly, she suggests parish intergenerational workshops and dialogs as a means for moving forward positively. The bottom line: we should take generational cultures as seriously as ethnic cultures.

The 45 minute audio of the lecture is available here.

The written text prepared for the lecture (not including ad libs) is available here.

The reviewer’s commentary is in italics.

Generational Cultures: Key Formative Factors (according to Karl Mannheim)

1. Our childhood environment until around age 18 is absorbed passively like a sponge without much critical thinking. For myself, this environment was pre-Vatican II, i.e. Latin Mass, Cold War, two-parent family, etc.

2. Around age 18 we begin to form critical opinions about the world around us in a big way. Once these are formed, they become lenses for how we process the world for the rest of our lives. For myself, this critical processing included Vatican II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War.

Generations form because we are very influenced by the opinions of our close peers rather than other generations. For myself, almost all my close peers were for Vatican II and civil rights, and against the war.

Discussion Question: Notice that it is very possible to absorb something passively (e.g. I liked Latin and Gregorian Chant) yet easily decide to do something very different when processing begins (e.g. the Mass would be better for everyone if it were in English). According to Mark Silk, Gen-X was loaded with Catholic identity when they started their processing. That identity would have been passively absorbed prior to 1990. However they could easily have affirmed that passive identity while beginning to do things very differently, e.g. not attending Mass. That would ultimately show up in their lack of Catholic identity in 2008. Do we put too much emphasis on loading people with religious knowledge in their youth? Do we abandon people when they begin to critically process their lives in their 20s?

The Generations

Birth date range Title 18th birthday range 28th birthday range
1915-1929 Greatest  (1933-1947) [1943-1957]
1930-1945 Silent (1948-1963) [1958-1973]
1946-1961 Boomer (1964-1979) [1974-1989]
1962-1981 Gen-X  (1980-1999) [1990 -2009]
1982-1995 Millennial (2000-2013) [2010-2023]

For reference, I have given usual birth date range and title of each generation. However I have added its 18th birthday range in parenthesis, and its 28th birthday range in brackets. What happened and was discussed among our peers between our 18th birthday and our 28th birthday is key along with what we absorbed passively before our 18th birthday.

After our 28th birthday, I suspect thinking comes to be formed more by marriage, children and professional practice than by our age peers. Even though my professional identity as a social scientist was being formed passively from age 18 through age 28, its active formation took place in earnest when I began to teach and do research on my own, first in academia, then in the public mental health system. So we may acquire our professional culture in a similar passive then active pattern, only about a decade later than our religious culture.

Gen-X and Millennials: the Future of the Church

Wittberg describes both generations as image-oriented and non-discursive, media savvy, desirous of community and belonging, egalitarian and tolerant, and postmodern (reluctant to say something is true for everyone).

She says Millenials tend to be less critical of parents and institutions, more team-oriented, conventional, more sheltered by parents (half talk to parents every day), more confident and hopeful (at least prior to the Great Recession). However they tend to be even more materialistic than Gen-X. Seventy five percent in 2005 said it was essential or very important for them to be rich as compared to 62% of Gen-X freshman in 1980, and 42% of Baby Boomer freshmen in 1966.

The Gen-X & Millennial Catholic “Debacle”

N.B. She did not use Silk’s word, but I think it is an apt description of this summary.

Wittberg describes Millennials and Gen-X as unschooled in Catholicism. A third never attend Mass, another third attend only a few times a year. Over 50% of Catholic Millennials say they are not religious.

Of all Christian denominations in the United States, Catholic youth are the least likely to attend religious services once a week or more, say their faith is very or somewhat important, say they believe in God, or pray once a day or more. Catholics young adults are most likely to never attend religious services, say they never pray, and say they don’t believe in God.

Fewer than on third of Catholic young adults think of themselves as practicing Catholics, or say that the sacraments are essential. Two thirds say missing Mass is OK.

An even more ominous finding in some surveys is that this alienation is stronger among Catholic young adult women than among their male counterparts. This is highly unusual. In the past, Catholic women have always been more orthodox in their beliefs and more observant in their devotions and Mass attendance than Catholic men were. At least since the 1990s however this proportion has been reversed. While both genders…are far less devout than their elders, the women are even more alienated than the men are. If the Church loses Millennial and Gen-X women, it will lose their children as well.

For the most part, however Millennials are not -yet- anti-religious. Instead their primary attitude toward religion is a sort of benign neglect…

…I believe that Catholic Millennials are at a crossroads as far as their affiliation with the church is concerned. I believe that many are deeply alienated by the polarization between warring factions who are still fighting the battles of 50+ years ago….

…a small minority has reacted to the egalitarianism, post-modernism, and tolerance of their generation by aggressively promoting the exact opposite.. there is only one way to be a real Catholic, …the seminarians among them say the priesthood is a special and holier state, ..there is only one truth. The problem, of course, is that it is primarily this 6% that is showing up in our seminaries and religious orders.

This has potentially, two extremely negative effects:

1) having unusually conservative clergy may alienate from the Church the majority of Catholics of all generations who are not becoming more conservative.

2) many young men and women who think they have vocations may ignore God’s call because they don’t think they will fit in.”

Suggestions for Parish Intergenerational Dialogs

Wittberg’s talk has a number of suggested exercises for parish intergenerational dialogs. However the taped and written lecture formats belong to the older generations. I would suggest recruiting media savvy Gen-X and Millennials to produce a multi-media workshop that features music, photographs, etc. from the different generations.

The Mannheim paradigm which contrasts a period of passive absorption of a culture with a period of active creation of culture could be applied to marriage and professional life as well as religion. Different generations have entered marriage and professional life as well as adult religious life with vastly different passive preparatory as well as active experiences. I suggest taking a broad view of intergenerational dialog and having a range of facilitators, e.g. marriage counselors, vocational counselors, etc. This might attract many people to ongoing discussions and make them less of a one time event.

Jack Rakosky, a Pray Tell reader, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


10 responses to “Communion Across Generations: Intergenerational Dialog; Another Take on the Gen-X & Millennial Catholic Debacle”

  1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    I wonder if we’ve lost these youth because we lost their mothers first.

  2. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    I appreciate Prof. Wittberg’s depiction of “Generation X” as a group drawn towards [i]mage-oriented and non-discursive” experiential reasoning through an interest in “older prayer forms”. (5) (my addition in brackets) I agree with her that “Generation X” desires “community and belonging” (5). Even so, Wittberg does not sufficiently connect a desire for “older prayer forms”, a need for group identity, and the actions of “anti-generational” persons. (8-9) I agree with Wittberg that inevitably every generation will contain members who react pointedly against the forces of societal change present in their youth or younger adulthood. The presence of a reactionary few within any generation is not only likely but also probable. Even so, the presence of “anti-generational” seminarians or new priests does not account for the possibility that doctrinal conservatism or interest in the EF might be converted towards pastoral good and not unleashed destructively.

    Indeed, there are some seminarians and newer priests who harbor an disdainful attitude towards the ordinary form as often practiced today. Some seminarians and new priests idealize EF ceremonial, plate, and vestment. For a number of seminarians and newer priests, the solemn EF is the pinnacle of all Roman liturgical expression against which every mundane Mass should be judged. Any seminarian or priest who confuses lofty ideals with absolute conditions will likely experience difficulty as a ministerial servant.

    Even so, there is hope that an oppositional defiance might turn towards a true desire to support a congregation despite personal preferences. A priest who places aside his desire to say the EF exclusively and says whatever Mass which his parish assembly requires in order to grow in Christ has moved towards placing the pastoral needs of his flock over his personal desires. This way, an interest in older liturgy and folkway can be converted from divisiveness towards charity.

    1. Clarence Goodwright Avatar
      Clarence Goodwright


      While I think you are correct that some seminarians/priests view the EF Solemn High Mass as the end-all-be-all of liturgy, I think that you are wrong to suggest that is the only end desired by those who want a more solemnized liturgy. To suggest that it’s even a significantly large number is to caracature the current generation of seminarians and young priests. I would say that the number is ‘few’, because any diocesan seminarian who has no desire or willingness to say the overarching majority of Masses in the OF not only deceives himself, but also would probably be screened out by the seminary long before ordination.

      I think you are more likely to find seminarians/young priests who are convinced that the current musical situation and ars celebrandi in many parishes is severely lacking, and who would rather seek to fix it by introducing chanted propers/more vertically-oriented hymnody, and by more closely following the rubrics and ‘best practices’ of the Ordinary Form.

      The consensus among the seminarians that I know is that there is much that can and must be done to improve parish liturgy. The spirit of “Say the Black, do the Red” is nearly universal, even among those who know nothing of Fr. Z. For the majority, wide use of Latin, ad orientem, and the EF aren’t even factors.

    2. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      re: Clarence Goodwright on June 14, 2012 – 3:54 am

      I agree, Clarence, that “some” is a very inclusive word. Even so, I have long thought that the EF/ROTR blogosphere privileges idealized liturgies which quite often fail to reflect lived Roman Catholic experience. There are a small number of parishes where the EF/ROTR are gratefully lived and supported. These parishes are rightly few: most Catholics are not interested in an idealized liturgy of either extreme. I would propose that most Catholics seek acceptance, community, consolation, and pastoral counsel first. Do we not desire to give and receive love as brothers and sisters in Christ before all else?

      The clergy I most respect charitably manage their liturgical or theological sensibilities when ministering to a congregation which disagrees with one of their closely-held tenets. I hold the greatest respect for clergy who have redoubled and amplified their homiletic and pastoral gifts when confronted by those who deny their very ordination simply because they happen to be women. My self-identification as Roman Catholic will not prevent me from recognizing that ideological divides can lead even to the objectification of a clergyperson who is properly a person first. Objectification of persons is also possible in Catholicism’s single-gendered clerical estate. This is especially true when both clergy and lay define each other with ideological labels rather than address each other by name.

      Prof. Patricia Wittberg (I apologize for not mentioning her full name earlier) rightfully observes that “the intolerance of the ultra-orthodox” might turn away men and women with vocations. (9) Ultra-orthodoxy could be defined as a rigid prioritization of liturgical ideology over pastoral care. The characterization of fellow Christians as ideologies first and then persons not only corrodes charity but also destroys dignity. The solution is a respect for ideological diversity in the pews, at coffee hour, and in the classroom.

  3. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    The presentation is quite interesting. In my view, though, the prescription for dialogue, while not bad, may be overly modest. If what is looming is a demographic collapse – a debacle – then dialogue doesn’t seem sufficient, does it? Particularly considering that dialogue can’t start until the Millenial or the Gen Xer actually steps into the parish where the dialogue is to take place?

    What seems to be called for is some vigorous, maybe even heroic, evanglizing. To be sure, dialogue is essential in that endeavor, but I’d think it’s not sufficient.

    Also: using the dates given in the chart, it seems that Millenials are probably bearing children themselves: the generation that we’re baptizing and preparing for 1st communion (do we have a name yet for this generation?). If the debacle is upon us, there should be very few baptisms happening, and even fewer 1st communions. I’m happy to report that things aren’t that dire in my own parish – certainly, numbers are down from 20 years ago, but only a bit. Somehow, something is reaching across the generations, or through the noise of the culture, to get these parents into church for sacramental milestones. That seems to be a sign of hope and also a pastoral opportunity.

  4. Dominic Montini Avatar
    Dominic Montini

    I think it it kind of silly to equate liturgical “preference” with mere and superficial aetheticism. At least in my experience, those seminarians and priests who distain the NO as often celebrated do no do so out of an attitude of “preference” uber alles but precisely out of a love for their (future) flock. What father would want to give their child a serpent when they asked for bread? Further, what kind of father would straight up give their child a serpent if they asked for it? A real priestly father brings his flock to God-to conversion, repentence, love and adoration. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. John Vianney were huge on properly apportioning churches, wearing the right vesture and making sure Mass was celebrated with the proper decorum and dignity. Of course, we all know they were just a bunch of aesthetes too…

    I know priests with these “preferences” who would rather celebrate the TLM or the NO more traditionally but do the “parish Mass” for a number of reasons, not least among them the backlash they would get not so much from the people but from “brother” priests. If there wasn’t this acerbic hatred towards everything that smells of “pre-Vatican II” (not just liturgy either)amongst the presbyterate, we would not need to speak so much of division.

    If one wants to go down this road, one dehumanizes and devalues people who are or are studying to be priests by reducing their actual and legitimate (charitably, at the least, well intentioned) aspirations and programs as merely aesthetic fueled by superficial preference.

    Even those who seem to have that as a driving force almost never make it through. That, or if they do make it, its because they have found something actually sustaining (i.e. the spiritual life). Honestly, who wants to give up their life just to wear fancy clothes?

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      re: Dominic Montini on June 14, 2012 – 10:04 am

      Dominic: What father would want to give their child a serpent when they asked for bread? Further, what kind of father would straight up give their child a serpent if they asked for it?

      What is a serpent?

      A thought: I, and perhaps some of the clergy, don’t understand why Pope Paul VI signed Memoriale Domini (1969) and Immensae caritatis (1973), the instructions which permitted communion in the hand by indult and “extraordinary ministers of holy communion” (“ministrii extraordinarii s.[anctae] communionis“) respectively. (my addition in brackets) I personally do not find that touching the Host or sacred vessels enhances my understanding of the sacrament. For the same reason, I cannot understand why a fellow layperson would be eager to administer holy communion. Neither touching or distributing the sacred species imparts any more grace than mere reception.

      Should a new pastor discontinue the practice of extraordinary eucharistic ministers perhaps because he is aware that the practice of lay eucharistic self-communication has not been practiced in the Roman rite for more than a millennium? It is important to remember that some laypersons derive benefit from administering holy communion to others, even if the benefit gained cannot be described theologically. One might argue that a good priest, a good father of his parish, would permit some of the laity to continue to administer holy communion despite his qualms about the practice simply because doing so encourages the spiritual growth of some persons.

      It is not a serpent to give what is optionally permitted. Furthermore, often love requires trust even when one doubts in the efficacy of his or her gift. Perhaps the love demonstrated in trust given to others despite qualms will bring into church those currently dissuaded from the practice of the faith.

      1. Dominic Montini Avatar
        Dominic Montini

        I am thinking since the biblical passage I’m alluding to also mentions a scorpion that a serpent in this case would have to be an asp or viper and not a harmless variety. As such, what I am saying is that a spiritual father should definitely not permit what is not permissible and should not actively encourage (even if he needs to put up with it) what is not truly traditional and Catholic even if the people supposedly “want” it.

        The parish I grew up in never even thought of having laymen hand out Communion or receive under both species. The thought never crossed their minds. Then along comes a more “progressive” pastor who thinks we need to do both. No one really cared, but some folks were miffed but we go along with the priest because he’s the one who’s supposed to be in charge of stuff like that. He leaves, back to the old practices, some people are now miffed. Is this really a pastoral concern or is it a good example of why we should ask why a fence was built before tearing it down?

        I agree, there are a number of pastoral concerns that necessitate prudence. Theoretically, many of them are there as a result of foolishness from the top and troublesome and disobedient wrangling from below. That these are problems that never should have come up is a different issue than the parish level issues one has to face, but it sure would be nice to get some stronger support from on-high.

        The problem with these examples is that how do we measure such growth? Spiritual direction is a very delicate work, even most priests really are not cut out for the job. As such, coupled with the inability to really be able to tell if such things contribute to spiritual growth, it seems that the general spiritual malaise in the last 50 years would make it hard to say that such things do anything useful beyond give some feel goods.

  5. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    I would be interested in hearing from musicians, especially young musicians, who are involved in worship services geared toward teens and persons in their twenties.

    My experience has been varied.

    Several local parishes have had a rotating teen Mass. I think the group called their music “contemporary Christian.” It seemed rather bland to me in both music and words.

    Several years back a local parish had a guest concert by a group from a Newman Center. Their concert was very “charismatic.” It did not seem to attract many young people; the older folk (other than a few of us) did not seem to be able to get into it. However they also did one of the parish Masses where they chose to do much of the music the parish does, and they did it extremely well.

    The Cleveland Diocese does an annual event called the Fest done by the Center for Pastoral Leadership (otherwise known as the seminary).

    TheFEST is a one-day, FREE festival for all ages. Come enjoy live national bands singing on stage, tons of entertainment, games, BMX shows, kids areas, tents with vendors from all over our area, giveaways, your favorite festival foods, an evening outdoor mass and of course the day wouldn’t be over without an amazing fireworks display!

    Over it’s history, theFEST has truly become a one-of-a-kind regional event. People from all over Northeast Ohio eagerly anticipate and look forward to theFEST each year! TheFEST began in August of 2000, where just under 5,000 people attended. Now, 12 years later, the attendance has reached 35,000! Find out why so many people keep coming back!

    Enjoy the music here:

    The music for the coming fest plays automatically in the background. Turn it off (lower right) before you try the videos. There is an entire Mass for last year; 90 minutes among the top videos.

    A local parish is planning a regular Sunday afternoon Mass beginning next year. They are inviting the young people to become involved now in the planning and doing. Will be interesting to see what they do.

    I think the outreach has to be more than the old fashioned dialogue. You have to invite people in to be themselves.

    1. Brad Wilson Avatar
      Brad Wilson

      I’m a 26 year-old Director of Music at a smaller parish. While we don’t have a specific Mass set aside for teens and young people, I will share some feedback I’ve received.

      I started my current position two years ago, taking over for someone who had been there for over 20 years. The parish was most accustomed to the Glory and Praise music of the 80s. After I arrived, I pushed the choir to perform a more traditional repertoire, including some polyphony and began programming more traditional hymns. So far, I can generalize the feedback into a few groups:

      The older folks (mostly the Silent/Boomer generation) complain that the music is too professional. They enjoyed the liturgical dance that is no longer utilized. There are definately a few people in this group, however, that comment that the music is nostalgic to them and really enjoy it.

      The Generation X’ers are about 50/50. Some like the change, others don’t.

      By far, the Millennials are the most receptive to the changes and seem the most appreciative of the older, more traditional music. Specifically, a younger mother came up to me after one Mass and told me to plan more traditional hymns because her children love singing with them more than the pop music heard in a lot of churches today. They seem to be more interested in a church experience that is separate from society…a place to which they can escape.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: