YONKERS, N.Y. – The thousands of young Roman Catholics who have journeyed to see Pope Benedict XVI include 65 prep school students sleeping on a cold church floor, who believe everything he says, and a 15-year-old Queens girl with a lesbian sister, who isn’t so sure.
At a rollicking youth rally on the campus of St. Joseph Seminary, and at events throughout the week in Washington and New York, Benedict has encountered youth who have read his encyclicals – and others more interested in the cool factor of getting to see the pope.
The pope was welcomed to chants of “Viva Papa!” at the Saturday rally, but American youth don’t always embrace their faith so easily. Which direction the younger generation goes will have a major effect on the future of American Catholicism.
Only 14 percent of Catholics between 20 and 40 attend Mass at least weekly, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate at Georgetown University. Other polls find Americans are switching religions more than ever or leaving faith altogether, with the Catholic church feeling those trends acutely.
Yet evidence also suggests a blooming of youth Catholic orthodoxy. Tradition-minded private Catholic schools like Christendom College in Virginia and Ave Maria University in Florida boast small enrollments but are growing in stature. Also growing are women’s religious orders in which sisters wear habits and perform traditional roles like teaching.
These young, devout Catholics share an appreciation for orthodox theology, self-sacrifice and fidelity to church teaching.
John Romano, 16, wakes up each morning, says a prayer and tries to attend Mass during the week when he can. He attends Northridge Prep School in the Chicago suburbs, a 300-student, boys-only school started by members of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group.
Romano and a busload of classmates could not find lodging in New York for their pilgrimage to today’s Mass at Yankee Stadium. So he and 64 other students are sleeping on the floor of a parish hall in Manhattan.
“If things go bad, I think, ‘Christ had to carry a cross,’ ” Romano said. “Sleeping on the hard concrete floor … I’m not complaining. I’m offering it to him.”
Many young adults, Catholics included, have been reared “with a diluted version of Christianity, a sort of make it what you want, just be nice to other people version,” said Colleen Carroll, author of “The New Faithful,” which studied young, traditionalist Christians. While that contains some truth, many young people find it too watered down and easy, she said.
BustedHalo.com, an online magazine, targets spiritual seekers in their 20s and 30s. It was started by the New York-based Paulist Fathers, a Catholic religious order.
“We’re not talking to people in the choir lofts,” said editor Bill McGarvey, 34, a Catholic. “The people we’re talking to have the questions of faith and meaning hard wired into them.”
As he has watched Benedict this week, McGarvey has been impressed with the pope’s frankness in addressing clergy sexual abuse and meeting with victims. “It’s really difficult to argue with anything the pope has said,” McGarvey said. “His message is one of love and unity.”
Sabrina Piazza falls between what are typically described as liberal and conservative Catholics. The 15-year-old from Queens agrees with church teaching against abortion but cannot accept its denunciations of homosexuality; her sister is a lesbian. But on Saturday, she and 21 classmates from her Catholic school unfurled ponchos on the grass at St. Joseph Seminary.
Some of her classmates believe in the totality of Catholic teaching. But she said most are like her – trying to square their faith with what their life experiences.
“We are asked basically to follow Jesus and do what he did, and I understand that,” she said “But it’s hard nowadays. We try to do the best we can.”