A former student at UB is currently studying at CTU in Chicago and he asked me a very provocative question:

“Why is Vatican II so important?”

It seems his professors are emphasizing it a lot in his courses. I informed him that of course, it is important. After all, it was a major moment of church history. I let him know depending on the age of his professors they may have lived through it and therefore were as excited about that moment as he may have been about the election of Barack Obama–a major moment in the lives of today’s college students.

But Vatican II? It might as well be World War II. It’s not an event that millennial students experienced, nor any of their friends, maybe not even their parents.

For millennials It’s the same old boring church (boring here, meaning nothing new and not an insult) for them that has been in place for the last forty years. And by the way, it’s the exact same thing for me. I’ve only heard about Vatican II’s changes, but haven’t had any experience of life before the council either and I’m the old guy at 41.

So when people like this student say that they don’t relate to “Vatican II Catholicism”, they’re simply being honest. What’s the difference between Vatican II Catholicism and “plain old Catholicism” my former student asked? A question that I praised as a good post millennial criticism.

I began to get curious. What were some moments that were significant in his coming of age. The ones for people now probably 5-8 years older that him are the ones I usually point to from my book, Googling God. They are: 9-11, Columbine, Katrina, Indian Tsunami, Virginia Tech.

Now I think for the present college student they might be: Aftermath of 9-11 (War in Iraq, PTS, Instability in the world, Airport security, fear of terrorism), Election of Barack Obama, Economic downfall, Virginia Tech Shooting, Weather-related natural disasters. From a church perspective, the death of John Paul II, the election of Pope Benedict XVI and the church’s sexual abuse scandal might be the big three for practicing Catholics.

I asked my student what he thought about world events during his time of transition with regards to church history and he reported that the election of Benedict XVI was very significant to him. I pressed. He said, “It was cool to learn about how the election took place. And it was suspenseful.”

This points to the fact that young people don’t know a lot about their faith but are really grateful when they do get some knowledge about it. They want to know more, but don’t always know how to attain that knowledge. A minority are “Taliban Catholics”, a type of Catholic fundamentalism–who merely have a rudimentary knowledge of the faith and adhere strongly to it. Most people are the types who are attracted by a desire for Equanimity–the idea of trying to make meaning–and perhaps getting some assistance from others in the attempt to do so.

But because of their parents’ suspicion of institutions coupled with the lack of religious practice in most households, millennials often drift in and out of a variety of loose spiritual practices. Even those who have been nominally Catholic (meaning your basic Christmas and Easter and perhaps Ash Wednesday or Good Friday) don’t generally seek religion as a whole. Rather, they turn to it when needed or are thrust into an opportunity where they are forced to make meaning.

So where does that leave the church? With a huge opportunity to help students and young adults to make meaning. But to do so we have to be proactive and reactive. How willing are we to enter into their lives? Simply put, we need to engage these folks as we would anyone else that we’re interested in knowing more about. We have to remember their background and longings are different from ours and that they will respond to contemplation, quiet and mentoring.

But most of the time, many will blow off this generation because they aren’t as excited about the hopes of a age gone by. And they’ll excuse themselves by saying, “Well all they care about is doing adoration all day long.” (An actual quote from a DRE in Boston who often referred to Vatican II Catholicism as “thinking Catholicism” and wondered why that turned younger people off).

We have to be careful with our thoughts about this generation. Who they are and what comforts them is different than the issues of Gen X and the Baby Boom. Let’s not hold that against our younger counterparts.