Fordham Conference Focuses on Twenty-Somethings and the Church


A 23-year old woman shared what she found to be her experience as she “shopped” around for a parish in Manhattan where she felt like she belonged. As one of the speakers at a conference about young adults and the Catholic Church, she described how she looked in the pews at different churches and asked the question: “Where is everybody else my age?”

The speaker, Jennifer Sawyer, a 2009 graduate of Fordham University, was a participant in the forum and conference, “Twenty-Somethings and the Church: Lost?” which was held Jan. 28-29 on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.

Ms. Sawyer and Greg Eirich, a sociologist who teaches at Columbia University, served as the young adult respondents during a morning panel titled “On Your Own?” that examined the struggles young adults face. David Campbell, the John Cardinal O’Hara associate professor of political science and founding director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of “American Grace”; and Carmen Cervantes, executive director of Instituto Fe y Vida, an organization for young Hispanics based in California, served as the session’s expert panelists.

Ms. Sawyer’s comment highlighted statistics discussed at the forum the evening before from 2010 Pew Research Center data that show 34 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 attend Mass weekly as opposed to 43 percent attendance by those 30 and older.

Ms. Sawyer described a “lack of connectedness” between young adults and the Church. She said young adults are having difficulty establishing relationships with the Church, later adding, “Especially when everybody seems to be talking about us and not to us.”

Conference sessions examined how cultural views regarding sex are affecting Catholic young adult communities, the relationship between popular culture and Catholic culture in a media-saturated world, and young adults’ spiritual longings and perceptions of the Church. Due to the overwhelming interest in the conference, a satellite location with a live broadcast was set up at the university’s law school. Some 600 people attended.

The conference was sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. In addition to 20-somethings, participants included many who are involved in young adult ministry.

Father James Martin, S.J., author and culture editor of the Jesuit magazine America, who served as moderator of two of the afternoon sessions, was asked if the 20-somethings are “lost.”

“I think they are still seeking, which is different than being lost,” he said in an interview.

He told CNY it is important for the Church to listen to young adults as well as use different media to communicate with them. “I think that the Church always needs to adapt its message,” he said, but he added that he’s hopeful about the future.

“Christ is risen, so we are always hopeful,” he said. “Even when things seemed bleak for the disciples, God had something new for them.”

Monica Olsson, a graduate student from the School of Theology and Ministry of Boston College, attended the conference with her friend and classmate Dave de la Fuente. Ms. Olsson, 26, told CNY that she “definitely noticed” the problem of young adults leaving the Church. As today’s Catholics drift away, those who follow them “will have no memory of the Church and not feel a connection,” she said.

“Real ramifications of ‘lostness’ will be felt in subsequent generations,” she said.

While the disappointing Mass attendance figures are not unfamiliar to him, de la Fuente noted that many young adults have “tremendous faith experiences” through their participation in retreats, World Youth Day events and the Charismatic Renewal movement, to name just a few popular practices and activities.

De la Fuente, a Filipino-American Catholic, also said that Catholics of various ethnic groups offer “a dynamism” that is already enriching the Church as a whole.

“It’s not that everything is lost,” he said. “There are reasons for serious concern but also for hope.”


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