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Young, Faithful and Christian – A devout Catholic youth in Europe

Young, Faithful and Christian – A devout Catholic youth in Europe

In the wake of the recent World Youth Day event in Portugal, Marianne Rozario looks at the state of faith amongst young people in Europe. 07/08/2023

Ten years ago, I stood on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, alongside three million other young people at World Youth Day – a global Catholic youth event with a faith–filled festival atmosphere, sessions to explore Catholicism, and Mass with the pope.  

Experiencing the excitement as Pope Francis drove by, and equally the silence of millions praying, I was taken aback by the magnitude of young people ignited by faith. Yesterday, an estimated one and a half million young people attended World Youth Day in Lisbon Portugal. I am sure that same feeling was evident.  

Karl Rahner famously suggested that “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’… or he will cease to be anything at all”[i]. The jury is still out on Rahner’s mystical Christian of the future. However, there are claims that younger Catholics in Europe today tend to be increasingly more devout, even if numbers overall are declining.  

Catholicism in Europe is facing a profound change. In the last 50 years, the Church has been eroding in Europe and the Western world, prompting its centre to move towards the Global South[ii]. But in the midst of this change, as Coutinho, Conway and Zrinščak (2023) explore, “a small but visible minority of young people are becoming ever more fervent in their faith, frequently even more pious than older birth cohorts”.  

Within Europe, we find evidence of a devout Catholic youth. In France, there have been suggestions that Catholics could soon be in the minority, but a minority that is more traditional and observant. Around 16,000 largely under–20s joined the annual pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres Cathedral this year, with a large percentage belonging to the Traditional Latin Mass Society. According to reports this annual pilgrimage is growing about 10% each year, but in 2023 it has grown by 33%. Similarly, pilgrimages to Taizé, an ecumenical community of Catholic and Protestant monks in central France, attracts 100,000 young pilgrims throughout the year.  

Reports from Spain paint a similar picture. The Hakuna movement, a youth movement with a dedicated devotion to the Eucharist and a heart for worship music, is gaining much attraction. Five of their songs recently featured on Spotify’s charts of the most viral music in Spain and they had a recent gathering of 60,000 people to the Fiesta de la Resurrección in Madrid.  

In Britain, Clements and Bullivant (2022) reflect similar findings. They found that rates of weekly Mass attendance strongest amongst the three youngest groups and weakest in the three oldest groups – 45% among 25 to 34–year–olds in comparison with 17% among 55 to 64–year–olds (2022, p.42). This was mirrored by those indicating that they never attend Mass – “the proportion of Nevers among 45–54, 55–64, and over–65 British Catholics is roughly double (or more) that among 18–24s, 25–34s, and 35–44s” (2022, p.42). For those attending Mass weekly, Catholicism was more important for younger adults than older adults – “18 to 34–year–olds are almost 1.5 times more likely to consider the Church the single most important part of their lives than are the 35–44s, 45–54s, or over–65s” (2022, p.57). Furthermore, Clements and Bullivant suggest that younger Catholics were more strongly God–believing than older Catholics (2022, p.70). 

Further afield, similar assumptions are being made. In Australia, for example, Martyr and Bullivant have reported that 94% of young Catholics who attend Mass regularly identify that their relationship with Jesus in the sacraments was very important to them, whilst only 7% indicated that they attended Mass to please other people.  

So, despite the declining numbers of those identifying as Catholic, why are we seeing that, amongst those who choose to remain, younger Catholics tend to be more devout?  

There seems to be a variety of tentative explanations. Amongst young Catholics in Italy, Boss, Botto and Ricucci (2023) suggest a desire to cultivate one’s own individual spiritual path and the reproduction of forms of high religiosity derived from the family are putting young Italian Catholics on a path of Catholic rediscovery. Ganiel (2022), researching Catholic youth in Nothern Ireland, highlights that highly religious young Catholics want renewal which has taken on both liberalizing trends and calls for better evangelisation. Bolzonar (2023) suggests that the renewal of political engagement of young Catholics is because they are inspired to be activists of social Catholicism. Clements and Bullivant (2022), based on their research in the UK, suggest beyond factors of immigration or the less committed preferring to identify as “no religion”, it is because those that remain double down on their religion in a counter cultural way: “to be a 20– or 30–something British Catholic, especially a practising and believing one, is to swim against the prevailing cultural currents” (2022, p.44). They define this as a “minority effect” of the relative few who remain and suggest that this is not as an exception to secularization, but as a side–effect of it.  

Whether the Christian youth of the future will be “mystic”, as Rahner suggested, is yet to be seen, but that young people are desiring God today is not. The devoutness of these younger Catholics – desiring Catholicism in all its styles – presents the Church of the future as one that may be small but mighty.

 


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[i] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations VII (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), 15

[ii] See Conway and Spruyt, 2018; Linden, 2009.

Image by Xonn, CC BY–SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Marianne Rozario

Marianne Rozario

Dr Marianne Rozario is Senior Researcher and Projects Lead at Theos. She is the co–author of Ashes to Ashes: beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife. She has a PhD in International Relations exploring the notion of Catholic agency in international society through the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. She is a Lecturer on the MA Social Justice and Public Service in the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s University.

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Posted 7 August 2023

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