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Monsignor Swetland

December 6, 2006 University Club, Washington, D.C.

Vice President for Catholic Identity

Ministering to the Millennials: The Ethos and Culture of Generation Y

Historians often cite the axiom that you can tell what a particular culture or era values most by what they place at the center of their cities, towns, or villages. In the middle ages, an age of faith, the cathedral or church dominated city center. By the nineteenth century, town halls or seats of governments were more the focus of attention. The twentieth century saw the shift towards shopping as first Main Street and then the shopping center or mall become the central focus of activity.

By the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, there has been a noticeable shift. Social commentaries now recognize that with our current urban sprawl and dislocation there is in fact no real center of gravity to our towns and cities. Many see this as a reflection of out post-modern culture. They say that post-modernism’s emphasis on relativism and a hermeneutics of suspicion about any system, truth claim, or ideology tends towards a constant de-centering.

Ministering to modern college students must take this cultural reality into consideration. One must try to reach young adults where they are and not where on might wish them to be. Fortunately, someone did this for me. I am Catholic today because of Newman Ministry.

I am a product of Newman Ministry. I became Catholic at the Newman Center of Oxford University while a Rhodes Scholar in the early 1980s. A typical member of the Baby Boom generation, the Campus Ministry attracted me by its willingness to deal with my search for “personal fulfillment.” By the time I was ordained and assigned as a priest to Newman work at Bradley University in the early 1990s, a whole new generation, Generation X, was going to university. Although the basic ministerial needs had not changed, Generation X’s approach to life was very different from the Boomers.

Today a new generation populates our campuses. At St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, we house more than 300 students each year and see several thousand more attend Mass and participate in our programs and classes. All the campus ministers on my staff and I agree that Generation Y is definitely not like Generation X.

Because of my experience with Catholic campus ministry, I am often asked how best to minister to young adults today. This is an important question to answer. Generation Y or the Millennials are the first truly post-modern generation. This generation, born after 1980, has grown up with computers and cable, AIDS and America Online, Challenger and Columbine, 9/11 and the war on terror. They do not know or remember President Reagan, the Cold War, the first Gulf War, or an Italian Pope. South Africa and Russia have always been democratic. School and work have always been a potentially dangerous place to be.

Many expect that a generation born and raised in an era of post-modern relativism would reflect this philosophy. Yet, the Millennial generation has caught many by surprise, especially in its thirst for religion and spirituality. This is particularly true of college administrators. Sadly, it has also caught some in church leadership by surprise too. Just when it is needed the most, many dioceses and religious orders are scaling back their commitments to ministry in higher education.

Let there be no doubt. The Millennials are searching for spiritual, religious, and moral truth. Numerous studies have borne this out including the recently issued report by the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA, Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose ( The summary statement of this study of 46 colleges and universities states:

Results showed that students have deeply felt spiritual and religious values, are very much engaged in spiritual and religious pursuits, and that such pursuits are far more important to them than most people may assume. But there are clear indications that institutions are not encouraging students to delve into these issues, and academic and campus programs do not seem to support these interests.

Our Catholic campus ministry must provide this much-needed support.

While it is always problematic to generalize about such a large group of people (80 million—twice as large as Generation X), it is particularly difficult to do so about this generation. They have no one hairstyle or clothing preference. Whatever may be true of the majority, there is a large and often vocal minority that is exactly the opposite. For example, while it is true that Generation Y is, on the whole, spiritually searching, the UCLA study shows that there is a significant minority that is indifferent about whether there is a Supreme Being. Any experienced campus minister knows that generational generalities never do full justice to the unique and diverse reality of those we are privileged to serve.

This being said, there are some general trends that do help to describe the majority of the Millennials, especially those who choose to attend college or university. For example, they are the “organizational kids,” called by David Brooks the “future workaholics of America.” Their whole lives have been planned, scheduled, and structured. Even playtime was structured and supervised for them, and their so-called free time was full of scheduled activity for “enrichment.” In college they continue this trend, attempting to do everything and build a “killer C.V.”

In my experience, they are goal-oriented and dominated by an achievement ethos. This makes them very accepting of the established order and deferential to those in authority. They would rather “surf” through and around the structures and “powers that be” than fight the machine. They are earnest and follow the rules.

They are also very optimistic and cheerful. This is true even though they grew up in a very safety-conscious world where any place was potentially dangerous. They were born when children had become the focus of the home, and most of them get along with their parents (90%) and basically share their parents’ values (75%) (cf. Howe and Strauss, Millennials Rising).

They like to study and socialize in groups. Friends are of the utmost importance. They are generous, open, and tolerant perhaps to a fault. They have little time for “big issues,” are often indifferent to politics, and are most likely to identify themselves as political independents. They usually spend about eight hours a day in front of either a T.V. or a computer screen. They are not great readers, but are immersed in other forms of media. While spiritually hungry, most Millennials are broadly uncatechized in their religious tradition no matter what tradition that may be.

How does one minister to such a generation? First, we must be present to them, ministering to them in authentic relationships. Between the ages of 18-25, most young people of any generation make momentous decisions that will shape their lives. They will go from an inherited faith (or no faith) to one they “own” as their own. They will choose their vocation in life. They will solidify or make many of the most significant relationships of their lives.  We best serve by accompanying them on this pilgrimage.

Second, we must provide answers to their questions. The most effective way to do this is by offering our own witness and by helping our students discover the answers themselves.

Any experienced campus minister knows that you can’t talk down to Generation Y. The Millennials like to drawn their own conclusions, and they want us to be authentic in our answers. They don’t want us to try to be what we aren’t; they want us to stay true to what advertisers call “brand DNA.” They want straight talk with utter confidence and total accountability. Campus ministers are not teenagers, and we ought not try to pretend we are. They want us to faithfully, frankly, and fully represent the teaching of the Church. They’ll hear dissent and attacks from other quarters. They expect (and, in justice, deserve) authentic Catholic teaching, whole and entire from us.

Liturgically, they are a mixed bag. I believe here, as in other areas, we must follow St. Paul’s admonition “to become all things to all that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22b). Contemporary services, traditional worship, and devotions of all types find niche groups of dedicated followers. I do find that Generation Y tends to prefer their religious practices to be highly “incarnational.” Statues and icons, “bells and smells,” rosaries and chaplets—all of these things are tangible and “real” to young people who spend so much of their time in virtual reality.

But above all, the Millennials are a generation searching for community. Nearly all young adults of any generation at some point perceive themselves to be lonely.  But this perception is particularly acute for the Millennials. Whether this feeling is real or just perceived is arguable. Nevertheless, it seems true to them. To many Generation Y college students, loneliness is a key issue, especially those who seek out campus ministers and ministry. They have grown up lonely. They are starved for love and affection. They are a generation that has grown up with few siblings and without a close extended family. Many of them are from broken homes. Usually both parents worked outside the home, and sometimes their careers came first. This means that emotionally, many Millennials perceive themselves consciously or unconsciously to be, as John Paul II has called them, “orphans of living parents.”

They are looking for true communion—a communion centered on a real, personal relationship with the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus. They are attracted to the fact that the Lord understands and shares in their suffering—the emptiness and loneliness and abandonment that so many of them feel. But they do not wish to dwell only on the pain. The Passion may have its place, but they want to experience the power of the Resurrected Lord. They long—as we all do—for the peace, joy, and communion made possible in Jesus.

This longing means that our campus ministry must be Christocentric and provide a place for true fellowship. We must provide spaces, places, and opportunities for prayer and communion. Of particular help is the formation of small group fellowships of various sorts. These Bible studies, prayer circles, and service groups can act as a “mediating structure” between the often large and intimidating realities of university and Church and the lonely individual. We must aid their search for answers and be “always ready to give a reason for our hope” (1 Pt. 3:15). They will then allow us to lead them towards service and discovery of their vocation in Christ.

Campus ministry is obviously a daunting task. It is only possible if we radiate Jesus Christ in all things. Especially, we must radiate Him in Word and Sacrament.  As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote at the end of his life: “For this reason, lest everything in the Church become superficial and insipid, the true, undiminished program for the Church today must read: the greatest possible radiance in the world by virtue of the closest possible following of Christ.” This quotation is reflected in the mission statement of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center:

The St. John’s Catholic Newman Center exists to radiate Jesus Christ in all things by encouraging those who live, worship, and work within this community to serve others and to strive toward the highest ideals of Christian spiritual, moral, and intellectual development as lived and taught in the rich tradition of the Catholic Church.

Thus I believe that our work of accompaniment with the Millennial Generation is best fulfilled when our own struggle to be good disciples allows us to radiate the joy and pace of walking with the Lord.

Many commentators have noticed a decline in religious education of both Generation X and Y. These studies need not be cited here again. Anyone who has worked with young adults over the last forty years will attest to this fact. Forty years is two biblical generations. The situation is that now the current generation of college students are the sons and daughters of a generation that was itself poorly catechized. Many parents, confronted with the awesome task of educating their children in the faith, have discovered just how much they themselves do not know. Nancy Yos commented on this situation in a highly provocative article in First Things:

No, the situation could hardly be more serious, unless Diocletian reclined still in his palace, and martyrs still faced night arrest and torture in the amphitheaters. The situation could hardly be more dire, unless the old Roman law still survived that stated flatly, frighteningly, “It is unlawful for Christians to exist.” No such law operates today, but the Catholic Church in the United States behaves as if one did. The situation is this:  that the Catholic Church in the United States is committing suicide through refusal to educate its people… We do not know even the fundamentals of our religion, and we are not stupid. If the fundamentals had ever been given to us, I think we could have absorbed them... But they were not given… No teacher ever stood up in any classroom of mine and made any positive statement beginning with the words, “This is so.” … Surely the American Church could have hinted at the weightiness of the faith, even to children, even to us. We might have learned how old this faith is, how heavy in history, how complex in tradition and deadly serious in creed….  To this pass: that the most privileged Catholics who have ever lived should be taught by their Church that their religion is a lie; for being kept purposely ignorant of it is the same thing as being told it is a lie… “I saved the Cross,” says Chesterton’s Father Brown, “as the Cross will always be saved.” I wish it were so, but I am afraid. Maybe not for us. Not here.

Fr. Alfred McBride, O. Praem., speaks of the “religious illiteracy” that has ensued:

Here I wish to draw your attention to the matter of what some call a religious “illiteracy” among our young Catholics… Frankly, they are not learning the [religious code] words, let alone the content and meaning of the terms… Such competence ought to be the sign of a trained, informed, and literate Catholic… As for doctrine, students still think that the Immaculate Conception is the Virgin Birth. Grace remains a mystery for them even as an identifiable term. Sad to say they have neither a pre- nor a post-Vatican II appreciation of miracles and find the resurrection of the dead as puzzling as an obscure term found in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. They have yet to find a way of decoding eternal life and the significance of faith as a gift. I would never claim that such lofty doctrines ought to be grasped in depth by young students. It is not a question of depth perception so much as any perception at all. The great Christian doctrines will always keep us in awe and silence before the mystery. But we need to know what to be in awe about.

No one ought to be complacent in light of this situation. We who have been privileged, graced, and blessed to be given the faith have the moral duty to share it with others. It is, after all, the greatest gift we can give, for at the heart and center of it all, we are introducing others to Him whom we love.

In this book, Dr. Ken Howell and Mrs. Christine Pinheiro have done an invaluable service. They have indeed given witness to the hope that is within them.  Recognizing the struggles that both Generation X and Y have when it comes to “knowing the faith,” this book provides answers to the most basic questions of faith and life. The answers provided here are places to begin the life-long pursuit of coming to know ever more deeply the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. These questions and answers should help any Christian “to set out into the deep” (duc in altum) with Jesus.

Ultimately, the answer to the fundamental questions that people ask are important because people matter. These questions and their answers point to the longing that is to be found in every heart. We want to know who we are and why we are. Ultimately, the answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals us to ourselves and makes our eternal vocation clear to us.[1] In Jesus, we discover eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3)

[1]Gaudium et spes, 22.

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