Many people have assumed that once millennials started to grow older and have kids, a large number would return to the church or become more actively engaged. This has not materialized — the numbers are troubling. And there are certainly many reasons why, from changing social norms to mistakes the church has made.
As the church prepares for the upcoming synod on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” and looks to “encounter, accompany and care for every young person without exception,” it would be helpful to consider what more the church could be doing to welcome and support young families.
In its preparation, the church has identified a central concern: the exclusion and isolation of many young people. Social atomization has accelerated rapidly, as communal bonds have frayed. Many young people move away from family and friends for new jobs or other opportunities, sometimes across the country. Digital communities have not replaced the social bonds and support we need to flourish as persons.
Parents with young children are not exempt from experiencing the costs of these changing dynamics. In some cases, the sense of isolation can be worse, particularly for stay-at-home parents. Critical forms of support have disappeared.
These changes have fostered an extreme individualism that intensifies isolation and alienation, further damaging the social fabric and diminishing the appeal of a church that is communitarian at its core. At the same time, many reject this ideological individualism, yet live in a world that is shaped by it and find few viable alternatives for living differently.
The church must offer an alternative. And it must not just teach it, but live it — fostering a sense of welcome, belonging and community.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to eliminate the feeling and experience of anonymity. A number of my friends have spoken to me about the isolation of attending Mass week after week without knowing anyone else. This can be particularly true when you’re one of the only young adults present.
Strong young adult groups that create social bonds and foster mutual support are very valuable in remedying this. But it is important for these groups to not just cater to single people or those without children. Social events can’t just be going to bars or always scheduled at times when it is difficult for parents to bring their kids or slip away from home. Retreats or small groups could offer child care to help parents who cannot afford to constantly hire a babysitter.
Parishes can also create small groups specifically for parents, ideally where child care is available. Parents might find advice, assistance, friendship and spiritual development in such groups.
Something that is critical is for the whole community to welcome young children to Mass. Every week after Mass, our priest hunts down our kids for high-fives and a quick chat. He makes it clear that he sees us and that he is glad we are there.
Priests can follow Pope Francis’ lead by making it clear that mothers are free to feed their babies as they wish and that a fussy baby at Mass is a blessing, not a problem. Some parishes even put this in the bulletin.
Finally, working to make Catholic schools more affordable can help to support families and foster community. Catholic schools are not perfect, but they are valuable in passing the faith along. In addition, they connect families to one another, not just kids to the church.
These are just a few of many possibilities. What is essential is that the church rejects a sense of complacency and actively works to welcome, accompany and care for young families.
Join the conversation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Christian is a father of three and the editor of Millennial, an online journal by millennial Catholics on politics, religion and culture.
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