Why Do So Many Millennials Become Catholic?

Why do so many millennials become Catholic? It’s not because they’re hipper than thou, and it’s certainly not because they’re holier. Michelangelo’s writhing, unfinished statues of slaves, struggling in their prisons of stone, are a picture of millennial converts to Catholicism: broken and banished from Eden, stuck in the fallen flesh of Adam, yet baptized and brought back into the family of God. They are an unfinished product. And they are home. How did this happen?

How?

They are the generation that came of age amid Discmans, WWJD bracelets, Promise Rings, and “See You at the Pole.” Their childhoods witnessed the rise and fall of Tetris and Bible sword drills, Beanie Babies and light up sneakers. They entered puberty just when AOL screen names were at peak popularity and CCM was off the charts. Churches everywhere were dropping the -Baptist and -Church from their names to be more Seeker-Friendly. As gasoline prices plummeted to baffling lows, their parents drove them to youth group lock-ins at “Woodbridge Congregation” and “Prairie View Community” in sport utility vehicles. Their first rock concert was a Christian band no one has ever heard of, and they ended their relationships after reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye. They pierced their navels, their cartilage, their eyebrows, and covered their Bibles in stickers.

Then they went to college and more than a few of them discovered that C.S. Lewis drank beer. And they found out that dating isn’t one of the seven deadly sins. And the Dark Ages were not at all dark. And, as they watched the first installment of Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), they began to feel that perhaps there was something more to this world—more even to Christianity—than they had ever imagined. It was that one scene, the one where Gandalf visits Minas Tirith and reads the scroll of Isildur, either that or where Strider almost crosses himself when he sees Galadriel. It changed everything. It changed the way they watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ (2004) three years later. Nobody wanted to read Chuck Swindoll or Joshua Harris anymore. The last CCM album anyone bought was Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown. They were either turning up Sigur Rós or blasting monastic chant. They were either reading Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis or dog-earing pages of the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas.

In the end, most of them became spiritual but not religious Jesus Followers. Some drove back to Prairie View Community to be seekers. Others “discovered” tradition and social justice and liturgy—liturgy and the sacraments and the “deeper magic still.” And then came those innumerable hoards who went “all the way” and became Catholic.

The exact number of millennial converts is known only to the data-graphing investigators and their stockpiled statistical compendia, but I will put forward one anecdote: why do so many millennials become Catholic?

Why?

Why did the most expensively catechized Protestants since the Reformation become, of all things, Catholic? Now, long tomes could be written as to why millennials convert to Catholicism—and also, if this essay were about a different topic, why many “cradle Catholic” millennials leave the Church—but I just want to zoom in on one reason: What if Catholicism is true?

What if millennial converts simply discovered that the stereotypes and caricatures are false and the real thing is true, and then they did something about it? It’s not that those who swim the Tiber are smarter or have better taste: it’s just that they struck the mettle of the Church and heard the ring of truth—not the hollow thud of a glittering fake.

“Ugh,” someone almost always says. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but this guy’s tone. He talks as if everyone who isn’t Catholic is missing out.”

It’s true, if you’re not yet Catholic, you’re missing out. It’s also true that “emerging adults” and “young adults” (honestly, they earned these qualifiers) have very sophisticated palettes. They accept only the most anodyne statement, served with a soupçon of mustard, and presented in the most equanimous tone. But the biggest Catholic convert of 1922 put it this way: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right, do we? What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” Truth always has a sharp, pungent taste, especially when it’s free of the artificial stimulants of political correctness and the hormones of humble-sounding qualifiers. There are few left who can abide a clean sentence, a straight line; fewer still who will admit they believe whatever they happen to believe because it’s true—not privately, sort of true for me, but real, public truth for everyone, truth for adults.

Millennial converts can be annoyingly confident about Catholicism, but don’t forget that they’ve just had their previously cherished beliefs reduced to shreds. Accuse them of being arrogant and closed-minded if you must, but they’re not exactly pointing to themselves here: they’re pointing to the Catholic Church. They’re Michelangelo’s unfinished statues, the Church is the chisel. Can they help it if they’re excited about getting hammered into the shape of something bigger than themselves? Though the sharp blade of truth is tempered with love, it still cuts straight and deep.

No snowflakes here

Just when folks thought the last of the votive candles expired in the dark chapels of Catholicism, the loud ping of a millennial’s coin in the offering box echoes through America like a gunshot. Where did all these post-modern peasants throwing away their pills and practicing Awesome Family Planning, living the liturgical year and “offering up” their sufferings in smoky haze of incense, come from?

Theories abound: fight-or-flight, it’s trending, medieval superstition is a hard spell to break, not everyone can be among the elect, before the silvered tureen of the Pope’s theological snobbery yet another generation falls like grouse to the gun. Twas always thus, and always thus will be. But seriously, how did it come to pass that the generation of carefully groomed critical thinkers could produce so many Catholics?

The answer, as we have seen, is simple. Millennials become Catholic for the same reason everyone has always become Catholic: because it’s true.

In this regard, the generation of unique snowflakes is utterly unoriginal. Every generation has seen people from around the world run into the open arms of the Church. “Young adults” appear pretty late on the scene, and history is not impressed by their phones and pour-over coffee brewing methods. Catholicism isn’t a special millennial thing. This is, after all, the faith of their fathers.

They’re prodigal sons pulling into the driveway after a disastrous road trip. They barely made it home. But still, they are home, and not just because they read Scott Hahn’s classic, Rome Sweet Home. It’s because home is where the heart is—the immaculate heart of Mary, and the sacred heart of Jesus, and the heart of the Father who saw them, even while they were still a long way off, and ran to them and threw his arms around them (Luke 15:20).

“Honeymooners,” somebody almost always says. “When the clock strikes midnight you’ll realize that Catholicism is nothing but a big pumpkin!”

While the world waits for the autobiography of the real Cinderella, I’ll just head over to the parish right down the street where there’s a priest in apostolic succession lifting up the transubstantiated Body of Christ, and kneel as we join the Son in his eternal oblation to the Father in the loving bond of the Holy Spirit. I’ll just be thanking God that although I’m not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath his table, he’s invited me to sit with the family of God, a “son in the Son,” and enter into the mystery of the most adorable Trinity. Who could refuse such an undeserved gift?

I know, it’s horrible. But it’s not that I’m right; it’s that the Church is right. Are you?

Tyler Blanski is praying for a holy renaissance. He is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010). www.TylerBlanski.com.

This post originally appeared at Catholic Exchange. It is reprinted with kind permission.

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23 Responses to “Why Do So Many Millennials Become Catholic?”

  1. This one brought a tear to my eye. I was raised in a Protestant fundamentalist church (Church of the Nazarene) where it was commonplace to hear all about why Catholics (like my father) were going to hell because well, they’re Catholic. As you might expect, that upbringing created in me a profound cynicism, if not hate, for organized religion, especially “Christianity” (or what some churches believe it to be). I spent the next twenty years, basically disinterested and agnostic. Three years ago I experienced an extraordinary event on the highway driving home from a long trip. It lasted maybe ten seconds. For lack of better words, I felt my mind shut down, my heart open and then my mind open back up again. I felt an immediate peace overcome me and intense inner joy for the first time in my life. I spent the next year trying to figure out what happened. Did I have a mental breakdown? Am I nuts? Have others experienced this? I read all kinds of books–Buddhist, Rosicrucian, Freemason, Anthroposophist, Theosophist, New Age, etc. Some of it resonated with me because I think some of it is true. But it wasn’t until I experienced the Eucharist that I relived the highway event. I’m 40 years old, married with three kids, practice law, enjoy gardening, surfing, etc. I drink, smoke, swear, dance and do all kinds of things that would probably label me a “sinner” in many circles. But I am at peace. And the joy never left me. I have discovered that there is more to the Catholic Church than most people realize, even Catholics. There is a profound mystical tradition there (to start read Mary of Agreda or Anne Catherine Emmerich) and a gorgeous liturgy. There is a sober magisterium that correctly acknowledges the existence of active, interested spiritual beings (aka “The Communion of Saints”), including the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is not enough space here to share my experience with my Blessed Mother, but National Geographic was accurate in recently describing her as the “The Most Powerful Woman in the World.” My experience is that the rosary is a powerful source of “coincidences.” And there is the Eucharist, for which I have not the words. Who would have thought? Not I. But I now affectionately refer to that stretch of highway as the Road to Damascus.

  2. Oh my goodness, Tyler. A friend posted this and I read it before looking at the author’s name. I kept thinking “how does this author describe my exact college experience?” Turns out it’s because we went to the same college! Good piece, and very true! At least it’s true of my particular conversion.

  3. Regarding the UK, that is true but that reflects in no small part both the conditions now prevailing in Europe in general, and the long slow death of the Anglican communion in particular.

    England and Scotland can be thanked or blamed, depending upon your view, for making a success out of the Protestant Revolution. This is particularly so for England. But often missed in that story is that the English has been a highly Catholic people and the severance of the church in England from Rome began a centuries long process of ever increasing weakness of Christianity in England and Scotland. The titanic struggle to define Christianity in the early stage of the Protestant Revolution in England caused an inherent weakness in the state religion that’s caused it to be eroding away at an ever increasing rate for a very long time now. With the Anglican Communion now so balkanized in its regional behaviors its very weak.

    Given that, common people have had very loose, if any, attachment to it for a very, very long time. That’s finally causing it to just fade away. An cultural bias against Catholicism (present both there and in Scandinavia) is just now being overcome. While polls such as those cited reflect the rise of “none” in the UK, what they probably really reflect is the final death of Anglicanism itself. As that happens, however, what’s being missed is that three faiths are rising, and those are: 1) The Catholic Church; 2) The Pentecostal Church; and 3) Islam, three faiths that aren’t shy about stating what they believe as a rule (although the Catholic Church in northern Europe isn’t necessarily a good example of that).

    So, as time progresses, in short order we’ll likely see practicing Catholics exceed Anglicans in number and Pentecostalism be the vibrant English Protestant denomination. Islam will be a force there to content with, and not amongst immigrants only, but amongst those unchurched English who are looking for a faith.

  4. Regarding the topic in general, although I’ve already posted an overlong reply on the UK, excellent set of observations.

    What I’d additionally note about Millenials is that they’ve lived through the era of dominance of the Baby Boomers, which is still with us. Even now, we still have a slate of Boomer Presidential candidates seeking to recapture the White House.

    This matters as the Boomer generation (and I mean as a whole, not as any one particular person) has been one that was very indulged, has been very consumptive, and has generally failed to yield to younger generations. Generally far less observant of their faiths or any faith than their parents, they were the “Me” generation of the 1970s. All the “Me”ism that was espoused at that time has been presented to younger generations as a depressing lack of meaning, and they’re searching for it. Their problem is that they often have to find it all on their own, as the generation that dominates the culture doesn’t present good examples, so they struggle for things that are true. When they find it, they adopt it, but they are often seemingly all on their own in their search, and they know it.

  5. This is a very nice read but there is no data to support that throngs of young people are converting to Catholicism-in fact the data indicates otherwise. I think I recently read for every 1 convert 8 have left-how sad

  6. @DGwired:
    There was such a thing as the Inquisition, mostly in Spain just after Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile had driven the Muslims out of Spanish territory. Isabella and Ferdinand, and their successors were very concerned about a Muslim comeback taking over Spain b subversion, and that many Muslims had pretended to convert to Christianity to hide their evil intentions. Thus the Spanish government established a search for pretend Christians by assuming that heretics might will be Muslim pretend converts.
    Some of this may have slopped over to other European areas, but most of the activity was in Spain.
    TeaPot562

  7. Franklin P. Uroda Reply

    Hopefully for the same reason young men and women go off to monasteries and convents and seminaries and join up in movements like the Focus Missionaries. They’ve fallen in love with a real Person-Jesus-and are plumb excited about acting on that love. When I read an article like the above, and I don’t see His Name-Jesus-mentioned much, I figure it’s another attempt at a flexing of the religious intelligentsia, carving a niche for themselves.

  8. Also a Roman Inquisition that led to the papal abduction of Edgardo Mortara.

    And you didn’t mention the Index of Books.

    Are the millennials aware of this side of Roman Catholic truth? “Error has no rights” was the dominant view among Roman Catholic bishops before Vatican 2. Now that Error has Rights, what’s up with this notion that people convert to “truth.” Truth? Error? It’s all good.

    Haven’t you seen the pope’s prayer video? https://youtu.be/-6FfTxwTX34

  9. dgwired, what is the point you want to make and think you are making? What is your religious background, if any?

  10. The point is that millennials are converting to the truth. But what if the truth presented is not the whole truth?

    Don’t you think that’s a good question?

  11. Data crunchers slice & dice, and come up with any sort of answer you want.

    The evidence is found in the parishes of towns & cities that have a noticeable population of millenials. Look especially in the parishes that are more traditional/orthodox/old-fashioned than the suburban parish church-barns that their parents still favor.

    [Full disclosure: I am the father of two millennial sons. (My generation were told that we had to stop at two kids. We don’t know why.) They urged us to visit some of their favorite parishes, where chant and incense are standard. So many young couples! So many little kids! We have switched to where the life is.]

  12. People who look foe excuses to not be fully–or even marginally–Catholic by citing past indiscretions (or not being fully educated about past “indiscretions) of the Church, are not really interested in the Catholic Church except to prove how much better they are than all of that holy stuff and the poor slobs who adhere to Her timeless teachings.

  13. I am a “Baby Boomer”—one whose faith was grounded in science/fact/materialism. Life was absurd, and I was “heroic” in my determination to produce my own meaning for life—my own ethical principal—my own story of existence. My hubris was unlimited. To assume that the world was fundamentally a mystery (unknowable) was a non-starter for me. My approach was radical skepticism. I found Schopenhauer/Wittgenstein. The seed of doubt started to grow within me. The doubt increasingly produced a “stillness” and I woke up. Catholicism is Joy.

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