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.

0 thoughts on “Vatican II Catholics and the Millennial Generation”
  1. Mike, for the most part, I agree with you about how we deal with one another generationally. (I don’t think that is a word!)

    The constant dismissal of one another actually is a huge issue in the Church and it is really hard to do in the realm of generations.

    From where I sit, I see so many vibrant parishioners… all over the age of 50. There are families and younger people who are actively involved, but not as many.

    On the other hand, I continue to feel dismissed by those (of any age really) who immediately size me up as someone who is “too liberal,” or too “Vatican II.” While I would be more likely to be closer to liberal, I loathe those terms, as you know.

    For those of us in my generation who do speak of Vatican II, I would say – let us not be so critical of a more devotionally oriented younger generation.

    For those younger people, I point them to the young man who posed the question to you. Be more curious. There are those of us who mourn what seems to be passing. We can’t get mired in our loss. We pray that you won’t only look ahead but that you consider that there might be a golden thread to pull through as you weave the newer garments.

    It is about all of us turning our focus from ourselves and in a truly devotional way, focus on God but turning our focus to experience one another other as channels of grace.

    Which of course requires more than folks just criticizing another generation. It requires welcoming them as we wish to be welcomed.

    OK, I better drink some coffee before I say another word!

  2. This is so true. I, too, lived through the Council, although at a young age, but even those I work with on staff didn’t, let alone those to whom we minister.

    We, too, have a parish of those who have discovered adoration and the rosary. Since they have the same relationship to Vatican II that I had to WW I, it is good to remind myself that the issues of my youth are not their issues. And the ways that things come together for them might seem jarring to me, but we see through different lenses. (The same person, who says casually, “I’ll see you at adoration” might also post an enthusiastic tribute about the marriage of gay friends.

    This is less ‘picking and choosing’ and more a reflection of the world they live in.

  3. “We have to be careful with our thoughts about this generation.”

    We have to be careful with our thoughts and words and reaching out (or not) to all generations. Our American Roman Catholic Church is prey to the my-way/my-cohort-only polemics of the broader society. That way slams doors. Jesus, on the other hand, said he is waiting at the door and knocking.

    As a toddler during World War II at St. Peter and Paul, Milwaukee, I embarrassed my folks by climbing under the pew and untying the shoes of the sailor ahead of us. It was a beautiful, old, traditional church where the priest celebrated Mass with his back to us in a language I wouldn’t understand until I could read well enough to follow the English-Latin missal (4th grade?). You could get the sense, though – “Introibo ad altare Dei”… “I will go unto the altar of God.” I got it, preparing for first confession at 7, that my soul would be beautiful as the lithographed angel I colored in class, once I confessed my sins and was forgiven. But we went weekly, and kissed it off with “disobeyed my parents 3 times, told 2 lies” accounting, a practice I am still deconstruct-ing (or not). As a 19-year old townie commuting to Marquette for college, I was amazed that my friend Kathy had the same experience I had in confession. The Jesuit priest concluded by saying: “God loves you.” We both cried. It was new information.

    In 1997, at 55, I quit a good paying job, started my own business, and began a two-year adult faith formation program at Trinity College (now university) in Washington, D.C. Education for Parish Service was a joy – classes in Scripture, liturgy, sacraments, Vatican II, church history, morality, social justice, evangeliza-tion, catechetics, beginning and end-of-life issues. We had outstanding teachers. We were energetic seeker-classmates from parishes all over the Archdiocese of Washington. We had daily Mass, prayer services, summer seminars, and practical training in ways we could help our parishes. After 30 years and education of 3,000 students, EPS with its well-worn overhead closed this summer for economic reasons.

    I taught religious ed in two parishes for 13 years, half of them first communion and confirmation to children with special abilities. And of course I took the excellent Child Protection training required of all parish workers, paid and volunteer, in the church today; it is one step in healing our church from the clergy sex abuse scandal.

    We didn’t know anything about Vatican II either, we EPSers who had lived in its day but didn’t grasp its meaning til we took classes in it. Here’s one example. When I started teaching 5th graders in religious ed in 1997, and mentioned that Jesus was Jewish, kids responded: “Noooooooo.” Along the years, when I’d refer to Jesus’ Hebrew faith (not Catholicism!), they’d answer: “Sure. Of course.”

    Over time, Vatican II’s gorgeous brief Nostra Aetate, (Our age), Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non¬Christian Religions, with its emphasis on Judaism, had in a workman-like way taken quiet hold in the church. Bishops Conferences in various countries reflected on its 1965 call to stop blaming Jews for the suffering and death of Jesus. Changes in the liturgy, the removal of hostile verbiage, reflected the document’s condemnation and deploring of “all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.” Changes in catechesis pointed to the fact that Christianity “draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted (see Romans 11:17¬24). The Church believes that Christ who is our peace has through his cross reconciled Jews and Gentiles and made them one in himself (see Ephesians 2:14¬16).” New efforts in ecumenism built on the newly revived understanding that “the Jews remain very dear to God for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made. Together with the prophets and that same apostle” (Paul), “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (see Isaiah 66:23; Psalm 65:4; Romans 11:11¬-32).”

    Vatican II needs unpacking, praying on, conversation. John Paul set up V2 discussion groups in Poland, some of which were still going on, I heard a few years ago. We haven’t done that in the U.S. So much to learn, all of us of all ages and generations in the church, laity, clergy, hierarchy. Let’s talk to each other about it.

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