The future of Catholicism

Steven Harbaugh

Young Catholics provide the lifeline to sustaining the church

Many young Catholics have been affected by the death of the Pope, who made youth empowerment a priority of his papacy. Elyse Sikorski, Hudson High School senior, works at St. Mary’s Church in Hudson and is heavily involved with the youth program.

Credit: Andrew popik

The recent death of Pope John Paul II has reverberated with all Catholics but especially with young Catholics.

For most in the younger generation, this has been the only pope they have known in their lifetime. John Paul became the pope in 1978 and was one of the longest-serving and most public popes in history — making youth empowerment a pinnacle of his papacy.

Most Catholics are between the ages of 18 to 34, according to the book American Mainline Religion — more than any other religious group in America. Another Gallup poll found 43 percent of Catholics are under the age of 35.

“I would say that it’s no coincidence that our deceased Holy Father made it a priority to travel and reach out to youth,” Nick Hosmer, campus minister for The Newman Center said. “If we were going to step back and take a look at the hallmarks of his papacy, I would say it became the center heart of the issues he chose to address. It’s a very brilliant move to empower youth like that.”

But not everyone has the same philosophy that Catholicism does a better job with retaining youth.

“Thousands have left,” Rebecca Sexton, one of the founders of Former Catholics for Christ in Canton said, adding that she practiced Catholicism for 30 years and was planning to become a nun before she turned her back on the religion.

“I look at Catholicism as homeopathic witchcraft,” she said, noting that the religion brainwashes its followers.

“I get a lot of letters from young Catholic people that want to leave the church but can’t at this time because their parents will not permit them to leave.”

According to a Rutgers University study, Roman Catholicism gains 9.1 percent from conversions to Catholicism and loses 14.5 percent to those who convert to another religion, resulting in a net loss of 5.3 percent — a statistic John Coleman, a professor of religion at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, said he believes doesn’t prove youth are actually leaving the church at a high rate.

“We do a better job than other religious groups in holding on to our young adults,” he wrote in Commonweal, a national review of religion, politics and culture.

Whatever your stance on why so many young people are involved in Catholicism, there are a number of ways the church has reached out to young people to make them interested in the religion.

Logging on for salvation

In Columbus, the Catholic Diocese there has launched a youth-targeted Web site,, to promote Catholicism and encourage young Catholics to join the priesthood. The Web is a cutting-edge way that traditional churches are using new technology to link to young people. For instance, the Columbus diocese’s site features blog entries of several young seminarians training for candidacy in the priesthood, including Ty Tomson, a 20-year-old Columbus resident.

Tomson wrote in an entry about his new life of spiritual devotion in the seminary: “The mandatory prayers a priest is obligated to offer, the spiritual discipline of celibacy, the simplicity of living, and even the black clothes: all are actions and symbols of penance and sacrifice that goes beyond the season of Lent and pervades every moment of our lives.”

Although the Newman Center uses the Internet and listservs, Hosmer said it is important to the church to establish real, human contact with religious followers. And it’s important to note, he said, that it’s not through a recruitment process of forcing the Newman Center on people.

“I don’t think it’s because we’ve gone out and tried to convert people,” he said. “It’s been more making sure there’s an inviting, open worship space for the community.”

Faith totally rocks, dude

Christian rock music is a popular drawing force to church youth recruitment, Linda Kavalac, director of religious education and a youth minister at St. Patrick Church in Kent, said.

Kavalac will take a group of 20 young Catholics to a Christian rock concert at Grace Baptist Church this weekend, something that is very popular among young faith followers.

“It’s a difficult thing to get youth involved because there’s so many other things they’re involved in,” she said. “And I think that’s true for our whole society.”

But by encouraging students to attend more contemporary displays of faith, youth are staying interested.

At the Newman Center, Hosmer said the music stays more on the traditional end.

“Our angle is a little bit more traditional in regards to music than some of the more charismatic dioceses,” Hosmer said.

Youth groups and rallies

At St. Mary Catholic Church in Hudson, the youth program is what draws in 17-year-old Elyse Sikorski. She said she enjoys attending mass and then the teen-oriented activities that follow.

“It has really made me grow stronger in my faith,” Sikorski said.

More young people than ever before are seeking lives in the priesthood too, Mark Butler, the 31-year-old director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult ministry at the Catholic Diocese of Columbus said.

At youth rallies, Butler said he sees more young Catholics involved than ever before — more than the Gen X-ers in his era.

“That experience alone at youth rallies gives you an interesting snapshot of where we’re heading right now,” Butler said. “I think the genius of Pope John Paul II was that he tried to connect with the hopes and aspirations of young people. He not only told them that they are the future of the church, but he also told them that right now, they are the church.”

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].