When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
–The Pulley, by George Herbert
When I was studying theology at Franciscan University, I once wrote down a quote from Dr. Regis Martin that struck me, concerning those in the modern day who carry on the torch of faith:
“I see this every time I go to morning mass.” He said. “The little old ladies grappling their rosaries and perhaps wearing tennis shoes. This is the Church. Silent adorers at 4AM. This is the Church. ”
But what about the younger generations? In a world that grows increasingly secular, that seems more rabidly anti-Christian than it has been since the bad old days before Constantine’s conversion, what does faith mean to them? Today, at The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead brings to light an interesting development in the religious inclinations of Millennials:
America’s youth are leaving churches in droves. One in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion, according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, and 55 percent of those unaffiliated youth once had a religious identification when they were younger. Yet amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.
The trend isn’t entirely new. It’s also the subject of Colleen Carrol’s 2002 book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. But if Olmstead (and the polling she cites) is correct, it’s a shift that is continuing to gain momentum.
I can say from personal experience that I have seen evidence of the trend. I started attending the Traditional Latin Mass in 2004 after my own innate desire for reverent liturgy lead me, if by a crooked path, to the foot of the high altar. In the decade since, I’ve seen an impressive number of young families faithfully attending these liturgies, often travelling great distances to experience something deeper. At St. Mary Mother of God in Washington, DC, every 9AM Latin Mass on Sunday overflows the parking lot and attendance is standing room only. And while there is certainly no shortage of gray hair visible from the pews, what is noteworthy are the many young men and women in attendance, more often than not with large families in tow. The story is similar at the 12:30PM Masses at Holy Trinity in Gainesville, Virginia, or St. John the Beloved in McLean. One sees the same thing at the Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Charles Town, West Virginia, or at the Mater Misericordiae Mission in Phoenix, Arizona.
I mention these places specifically because they are some of the parishes I’ve attended with frequency over the years since I discovered the Extraordinary Form. I have seen evidence of the same thing in Eastern Rite parishes, as well as at the more consistently orthodox Catholic parishes that offer a reverently celebrated Novus Ordo.
In a word, good liturgy attracts people. Liturgy is about more than just a communal meal, a moment set aside for Christian fellowship. It is the paradigm of Christian prayer, the moment when Heaven and Earth meet upon the altar. It is the experience by which we enter into the eternal mystery of the transubstantiation. Each Catholic liturgy is not only attended by the faithful who are present, but by countless unseen angels. From the prayers of the ancient rite:
Humbly we beseech Thee, almighty God, to command that these our offerings be carried by the hands of Thy holy Angel to Thine Altar on high, in the sight of Thy divine Majesty, so that those of us who shall receive the most sacred Body and Blood of Thy Son by partaking thereof from this Altar may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing…
The fusion of the divine and the common is at the heart of what draws people toward reverent, authentic worship. Olmstead continues:
For high-school English teacher Jesse Cone, joining the Orthodox Church fulfilled a deep yearning for community and sacramental reality. Cone grew up in the Presbyterian Church of America, heavily involved in youth group and church activities. While attending Biola University, an evangelical school in southern California, Cone returned home over the summers to help lead youth-group activities. He was hired as a youth pastor and “even preached a sermon.” But at Biola, Cone struggled to find a home church. There were many megachurches in the area that didn’t have the “organic, everyday substance” Cone was seeking.
He began attending an Anglican service, drawn to its traditional doctrine. He was a “perpetual visitor” over the next few years. A Bible study on the Gospel of John pushed him further towards the high church. Reading through the book with a group of friends, Cone began to notice the “conversational and sacramental” way Jesus related to people. “There’s a lot of bread, and wine, and water,” he says. From Jesus’s first miracle—turning water into wine—to telling his disciples “I am the True Vine,” the mundane, communal ways in which in which Jesus connected with people “confirmed in me a sense of sacramentalism—that everyday aspects of life are important, in a way the modern mindset doesn’t share,” Cone says. “I started looking at the world with more sacramental eyes.”
Nelson believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of what many millennials feel. “We are highly wired to be experiential,” he says. In the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”
“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” Cone says. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”
I think that anyone who is serious about their relationship with God seeks worship that is meaningful, that provides them with a sense of the sacred, transcendent truths so easily lost in a culture immersed in narcissism, instant gratification, and distraction. It’s encouraging to know that Millennials are listening to the hunger they feel for the sublime, and following it toward a fulfilling encounter with God.
Things change, generations come and go, but the adage of St. Augustine holds true for every age: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”