The National Catholic Review
David E. Nantais

If you know any young adults in their late teens or early 20’s, or if you have young adult children yourself, you may be shocked by what they consider cool these days. I am not referring to anything scandalous, but rather to their appreciation for retro popular culture. The music of the 1970’s and 80’s is hip again (if you hated it then, watch out, because it’s back). If you examine the clothing on some young people, you might think that Richard Nixon was in office. Not too long ago, swing dancing and drinking martinis were all the rave. Some young adults feel unsatisfied by what modern pop culture offers them, so they look to the past to fill the lacuna. Ironically, when enough of them start doing this, the past is transformed into modern pop culturebut with a somewhat different spin.

I was reflecting recently on the retro movement in popular culture, and it struck me that the philosophy behind it provides a way of thinking about how Catholicism could evolve. Much has been written about Generation X, the Millenial Generation and their roles (or lack thereof) in the Catholic Church of the future. From my work over the past few years with college students, and from my own reflections as a 31-year-old Catholic and a Jesuit, I believe that young adult Catholics have much to offer the church, if the church is willing to listen. It is important that people of different generations speak to one another, or everyone loses out.

Living in the Past?

Let me begin with a distinction. While 70’s and 80’s pop culture may be hip now, there is no desire on the part of young adults to relive these decades. For one thing, many of them had barely been born, so there is no collective memory about these decades. Second, there were aspects of the 70’s and 80’s that are definitely not worth reliving. The Vietnam War, fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the Iran-Contra affair and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America are just a smattering of the problems faced in these two decades. To its credit, the retro movement in pop culture attempts to reclaim what is perceived as beautiful from the past while leaving the problems behind. It also puts what is reclaimed into a modern context, which necessarily means it will look different.

In a recent article (Beige Catholicism, Commonweal, 11/9/01), the Rev. Andrew Greeley laments the loss of many of the ancient Catholic devotions and sacramentals. Father Greeley writes that the abandonment of many practices since Vatican II has been to our detriment, because these things give Catholics a unique identity. Besides, many are quite beautiful. Father Greeley mentions the rosary, religious statues and chant as examples of the practices Catholics of the past used to reach out to the divine. These both appeal to the senses and can augment our tentative human awareness of God’s presence. Returning to these practices, he says, does not imply membership in the Society of Pius X or rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, but I also believe that it is important to return to some of these practices if the church wants to appeal to the younger generations.

One problem with these ancient customs is that many members of pre-Vatican II generations have attached to them their memories of an overly clerical and rigid church. Once the council initiated reforms, many people who experienced the pre-1962 church wanted nothing to do with that kind of church again. Anything that even hinted of what used to be was discarded. This response was probably appropriate for the time. Many people felt hurt by the church, and they were rightfully angry. But those of us who were born after Vatican II and know only a reformed church have a different perspective. I do not believe that the majority of young Catholics want to return to the church of the 1950’s. I do think, however, that there are beautiful and important elements of the Catholic tradition that could be resurrected by younger generations of Catholics, but with a new flavor. I am suggesting that the post-Vatican II generations could offer the church a retro-Catholicism.

Some may argue that the retro approach to Catholicism will serve only to strengthen reactionary Catholicism. As soon as young Catholics in the 21st century start having Benediction again, can the Latin Mass be far behind? I find this fear unwarranted. The culture of young adult Catholics is very different from the culture of pre-Vatican II Catholics. When one culture adopts some of the practices of another, changes are certain to occur. Today’s young Catholics are approaching their religion with a different set of values and perspectives than past generations. First, if young Catholics wish to reclaim aspects of the religious tradition in which they share, it will be on their own initiative and terms. This is vastly different from their parents and grandparents, who had a tradition thrust upon them without anyone asking if they wanted it or not.

Second, post-Vatican II generations are heavily involved with social justice movements, although the majority might not say their activism is directly tied to their faith life. This leaves young Catholics in want of some meaning to associate with their work for justice. Such a desire for meaning can lead young Catholics to the church, if they see that traditional church practices are relevant to their life projects. Allowing young Catholics to adopt a devotion and provide it with a modern interpretation could preserve the practice and make it relevant to the current times. One example of such a retro-Catholic practice would be the way the Stations of the Cross are now prayed in some places during Holy Week. Replacing the traditional plaques or statues neatly displayed in churches are alternative stations, such as the site of a drive-by shooting, a battered women’s shelter or the local AIDS hospice. Many inner cities are hosts to hundreds of worshipers who progress from one sight of human suffering to the next. These are symbols of the earthly struggle of Christ today, and young Catholics can more easily identify with such a devotion in its updated form. More important, if they are helping plan these devotions, they are more likely to participate and spread the word.

 

Teach Your Children Well

Of course, if we dip into Catholicism’s past, we need to do so with prudence, lest we repeat old mistakes. This is why educating young Catholics about their faith is so crucial. For the most part, Catholic catechesis has been sub-par since Vatican II. A friend of mine wryly commented that the religion classes for our generation, even in Catholic schools, consisted of, Jesus loves you; now draw a rainbow. An informal poll of the essayists participating in Commonweal’s Young Catholic Writers contest revealed that young Catholics (in this case, ages 18-27), whether they label themselves conservative or liberal, feel that they were not educated well about their faith. Young Catholics are curious about their faith. They see their Jewish and Muslim peers have no shortage of rituals, which serve to give an identity to these groups. How can 21-year-olds be expected to embrace their Catholicism as adults if they have no way of distinguishing themselves as part of a unique spiritual community? In that case, their only choice is between fundamentalism, which provides a unique identity with attractive black-and-white answers to their legitimate quandaries, and ditching the religion thing altogether for their own individual brand of spirituality.

I have conducted an informal experiment to gauge the interest of young people in learning more about Catholicism. I recently purchased a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism, by Robert O’Gorman and Mary Faulkner, and I left it out on my desk in the university ministry office. Without fail, every student who has walked into my office has picked up that book and thumbed through it with interest. They are amazed by what they do not know about Catholicism’s past. They ask why Catholics used to do certain rituals that seem bizarre to them, or why Catholics do not do other more appealing rituals now. Before this, whenever a student had a question about Catholicism it was always related to sex (usually some variation on Why does the church say I can’t have it until I’m married?). Just as many ministers have witnessed people expressing a growing hunger for spirituality, there is a corresponding growing hunger for knowledge about Catholicism.

Catholic education does not have to be a choice between rote memorization of catechism and quasi-spiritual mush. The previously mentioned Idiot’s Guide is a wonderful example of reclaiming an important facet of our tradition (the catechism) and placing it within a modern-day pop culture vehicle. Theology-on-Tap programs, sprouting up all over the United States, are another way that knowledge about the church can be passed along without turning people off. In fact, many people will embrace a theological discussion with gusto after their third beer! With some creativity and hard work, ministers, in conjunction with young Catholics, could take the reins and help formulate more venues for integrating traditional Catholicism into current popular culture. But to do this will require that dioceses, campus ministry programs and church leaders make it a priority.

It is both an exciting and anxious time to be a young Catholic. Many of us have seen peers leaving the church, and we are left to face the question, Why do I stay? I posit another question for post-Vatican II generations to consider: how can I participate in forming the church of the future?

I have laid out one idea that tries to merge a unique perspective garnered from our modern popular culture with the tradition. Ready-made Catholicism will not be handed to us as it was to our parents and grandparents. It is the responsibility of us in the post-Vatican II generations to offer our experience, our hope and especially our creativity as we try to figure out how to live as young Catholics in the 21st century.

David E. Nantais, S.J., is the university minister for the College of Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Comments

Mary Lauer | 2/6/2011 - 8:33pm
For the past 2 years, I've re-educated my teen daughter to traditional Catholic teachings of the Magesterium, which she wasn't getting in Catholic school. She took to it like a duck to water. We went on a 2-week pilgrimage to Europe, where we said rosary and went to mass daily. We found a 1960s style parish in Volo, IL not far from where we live, and attended their Traditional Latin Mass. Contrary to popular opinion, mass attendees weren't all old people. Our celebrant wasn't a day over 30, and that small church was filled with young men and women carrying infants and  toddlers. Obviously, they were born well after the reforms of Vatican II. 

Seeing this and the success of strong, traditional Catholic colleges like Ave Maria and Holy Family in Florida, I must say there is a future for the Catholic church with young people loyal to the Magesterium and the unadultered teachings of Jesus Christ. Their thirst for the faith is NOT about retro-fashion or nostalgia for Gregorian-style singing.

What you propose is yet another compromise of Jesus' teachings to accomodate the immoral culture of today. If the last 40 years of post-Vatican II Protestant-style reforms haven't taught you anything, then rest assured they didn't work. Pew research shows Baby Boomers and their children know less about the Catholic faith today than atheists do. We don't need more of the same.

My personal experience bears witness to the success of Pope Benedict's reform of the reform. I am confident that young people will return to the Catholic faith as the faithful begin the difficult task of righting the ship and turning it back on course.
Mary Felice, D.C., M.D. | 1/29/2007 - 10:34am
I greatly appreciated the article “Retro-Catholicism,” by David Nantais, S.J. (5/2). Falling into the category of Generation X and being eight years a sister, I found that what he had to say greatly resonated with my experience. I’m writing to make the point that I believe retro-Catholicism is an important matter to be understood in religious communities today in connection with vocations and formation.

Because of the decreased number of vocations, it is not uncommon for religious communities to have very few members from Generation X or the Millennial Generation. Speaking for myself, I have found that being in a minority, it takes a lot of courage to be true to what is important to me. Early on, I thought I was quite alone, but as I got involved in youth and young adult ministry, I realized that I was not alone at all. Rather, as Nantais describes, there is a trend among young people.

I was also encouraged to see that among young people there seem to be vocations waiting to be nurtured or picked from the vine, but I also came to see that no one sister or one generation can do this—it takes a community. If religious communities desire vocations, they need to be willing to go where young people are. If they shy away because what is important to young people reminds them of the past, then a roadblock occurs. I also believe that older generations have something important to add to ministry to young people and without them a piece of the body of Christ is missing. Once young people come to a religious community, an understanding of retro-Catholicism is important for both generations. Just as what is important to me can look to them as if I want to return to the past, their not valuing it can look to me as if they want to discard what is important. So if there is going to be true “community,” there needs to be understanding and acceptance on both sides. This is especially true in the area of formation.

Frances Rossi | 5/19/2002 - 1:34pm
As a Catholic raised in the pre-Vatican II Church, having seen both the old and the new, I have mixed reactions to David E. Nantais’ “Retro-Catholicism.” (5/20) Not discounting his experience with young Catholics—not unlike my own, as a mother of three and long-time DRE—I must still disagree with his concept of the pre-Vatican II experience. While I was captivated, growing up, by saints and statues, rosaries and medals, grottos and shrines, the rosary and stations left me cold. Lining up for Saturday confession was not a cleansing experience. Mass was, for the most part, long and dreary, despite my four years of Latin and handy missal. However, I loved being Catholic, and three things head my list of what was truly cool about the experience. First, transubstantiation. Not the word, but the idea that Jesus became truly present --not at Benediction or in the tabernacle, but there on the altar at mass. For that, I became a daily communicant. Second, the Easter Vigil. Oh yes, that returned to us before Vatican II in my Benedictine parish, and I was fascinated by it, and by all the liturgies of the Triduum, which I discovered and claimed. Thirdly, the idea of the breviary and the Divine Office caught my fancy, particularly when chanted in monastic settings—because it was rarely chanted elsewhere. But all three of these elements have come to the forefront in the post-Vatican II church. Transubstantiation has been supplanted by Eucharist, and the meaning has been enriched. Jesus is truly present during the action of the Eucharistic Prayer—but also in other ways. Anamnesis has given us a new, and even more exciting, way of understanding that mystery. The Triduum has come into prominence since Vatican II, along with the theology of the Paschal Mystery and our new appreciation of the Christian Initiation. And we now find ordinary people praying the Divine Office and hear it chanted in ordinary settings. Do these things attract young Catholics today? My own children looked forward to the Easter Vigil every year, and were even willing to drive 300 miles home from college to attend. As for Good Friday, young Catholic teens in general seem to find this liturgy meaningful, as they do Ash Wednesday. I have also found young people responsive to celebrations of a young people’s Liturgy of the Hours, when it allows for their participation. They do not, however, find the same attraction in Sunday mass. This is a serious problem, but not one that will be solved by substituting devotions such as Stations or Rosary. If I don’t entirely share Nantais’ prescription for change, I do agree with his diagnosis of the cause: the inadequacy of religious education in the post-conciliar years—and, in particular, liturgical education. I woke up to the reality of Jesus’ presence during religion class; I proved that presence at the liturgy itself. Are young people today hearing and being convinced of this reality? If we have catechists who truly believe in it and see it as central to our faith as Catholics, I think they will persuade our young Catholics. If we have churches that celebrate the Eucharistic Prayer as it should be celebrated, how can it help but infect the young with its truth? We have our work cut out for us, but we also have at our disposal a new generation of catechetical materials and leaders with the potential to lead our children to a faith this is not “beige,” but all in color.

De Colores!

Frances Rossi | 5/19/2002 - 1:34pm
As a Catholic raised in the pre-Vatican II Church, having seen both the old and the new, I have mixed reactions to David E. Nantais’ “Retro-Catholicism.” (5/20) Not discounting his experience with young Catholics—not unlike my own, as a mother of three and long-time DRE—I must still disagree with his concept of the pre-Vatican II experience. While I was captivated, growing up, by saints and statues, rosaries and medals, grottos and shrines, the rosary and stations left me cold. Lining up for Saturday confession was not a cleansing experience. Mass was, for the most part, long and dreary, despite my four years of Latin and handy missal. However, I loved being Catholic, and three things head my list of what was truly cool about the experience. First, transubstantiation. Not the word, but the idea that Jesus became truly present --not at Benediction or in the tabernacle, but there on the altar at mass. For that, I became a daily communicant. Second, the Easter Vigil. Oh yes, that returned to us before Vatican II in my Benedictine parish, and I was fascinated by it, and by all the liturgies of the Triduum, which I discovered and claimed. Thirdly, the idea of the breviary and the Divine Office caught my fancy, particularly when chanted in monastic settings—because it was rarely chanted elsewhere. But all three of these elements have come to the forefront in the post-Vatican II church. Transubstantiation has been supplanted by Eucharist, and the meaning has been enriched. Jesus is truly present during the action of the Eucharistic Prayer—but also in other ways. Anamnesis has given us a new, and even more exciting, way of understanding that mystery. The Triduum has come into prominence since Vatican II, along with the theology of the Paschal Mystery and our new appreciation of the Christian Initiation. And we now find ordinary people praying the Divine Office and hear it chanted in ordinary settings. Do these things attract young Catholics today? My own children looked forward to the Easter Vigil every year, and were even willing to drive 300 miles home from college to attend. As for Good Friday, young Catholic teens in general seem to find this liturgy meaningful, as they do Ash Wednesday. I have also found young people responsive to celebrations of a young people’s Liturgy of the Hours, when it allows for their participation. They do not, however, find the same attraction in Sunday mass. This is a serious problem, but not one that will be solved by substituting devotions such as Stations or Rosary. If I don’t entirely share Nantais’ prescription for change, I do agree with his diagnosis of the cause: the inadequacy of religious education in the post-conciliar years—and, in particular, liturgical education. I woke up to the reality of Jesus’ presence during religion class; I proved that presence at the liturgy itself. Are young people today hearing and being convinced of this reality? If we have catechists who truly believe in it and see it as central to our faith as Catholics, I think they will persuade our young Catholics. If we have churches that celebrate the Eucharistic Prayer as it should be celebrated, how can it help but infect the young with its truth? We have our work cut out for us, but we also have at our disposal a new generation of catechetical materials and leaders with the potential to lead our children to a faith this is not “beige,” but all in color.

De Colores!