No generation perhaps has been more unkindly stereotyped than the so-called millennials, the “Gen Y” demographic cohort — born roughly between the early 1980s and just after the year 2000 — that writers, researchers and certain self-appointed savants generically disparage as self-centered, lazy and entitled. In a particularly unforgiving Time magazine article (“Millennials: The ME ME ME Generation,” May 20, 2014), Joel Stein scathingly decried their purported shiftlessness: “Millennials are interacting all day but almost entirely through a screen. You’ve seen them at bars, sitting next to one another and texting. They might look calm, but they’re deeply anxious about missing out on something better. Seventy percent of them check their phones every hour, and many experience phantom pocket-vibration syndrome.” 

Entertaining as it may be for know-it-alls of older generations like mine to diagnose mockingly the causes for the increasing absence of young people in our churches — yes, this generation encapsulates a better part of the so-called “Nones” — this tendency reminds me of something a wise high school teacher taught me about finger-pointing. He warned my class that whenever the index finger points to someone else, the other three fingers point right back at me. 

I am not going to say that the reason young people are not coming to “our” churches is because “the Church” drives them out. That’s just too simplistic. The secular materialist culture surely plays a part. And everyone must ultimately bear responsibility for their own actions. But I would like to suggest that maybe what they are looking for among us they are just not finding there. Or when they do come back, they find that what they left hasn’t changed. Which begs an even deeper question, what do we who attend church regularly find there ourselves? Is church just a habit that, like comfort food, we acquired in childhood and just do because we always did it that way? 

Not all Catholics who miss Sunday Mass are millennials of course. Many absentees with whom I speak insist that they have not lost their faith — even in the midst of the terrible scandals we have been witnessing — and maybe even send their kid to a parochial school for the “Catho­lic values.” Often they say they are just too busy for church, but do pray at home. 

St. John Chrysostom — in a homily coming to us from the fourth century — once observed: “You cannot pray at home, like you can at church, where there is a great multitude; where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the unions of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of priests.” He exhorts us on the fundamental need we have for a shared faith that connects us.

Somehow we cannot get to God — or to WHO God is — all alone. We need to encounter God’s mystery as among us, here on earth, not just in some cloudy heaven or cyberspace. 

What millennials are searching for and what many regular church-goers seek may not be as different as we think. We are all looking for a God who is real and, therefore, transcendent, that is to say, not US, but infinitely better than us, holy, reliable, eternal, and all-loving. At the same time, we want to be able to “touch” the face of God. We want a God who is not out of our reach, who comes to us and whom we can feel in our midst.  

Welcome to the Catholic Faith! These two seeming opposites — the God who is greater than creation and everything and everyone in it and the God who is humble enough to be here with us — are just what the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about. But do we find that God in our churches?  

St. John Chrysostom also had this to say: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” The crucial connection between Jesus Christ really present in the Eucharist and the Jesus who, in his mystical body, identified with the poorest of the poor is like the two beams of the Cross. As Jesus is “lifted up,” — in Johannine terms — in his suffering to his heavenly Father in sacrifice, his arms reach out in loving mercy to each and every one of us. The great cost of mercy and forgiveness! 

One young woman recently shared with me her experience in searching for a spiritual home, a church where she could feel welcome. She, like many her age, has a deep yearning for the presence of God, but finds that many times the people she encounters in the churches she visits lack a certain reverence both for God and for others.  

She writes of being “offended by the irreverence of some parishes,” though she also notes, “[t]o be fair, I did find a congregation or two that had a better handle on our faith even than the celebrant of the Mass.” Clearly, she gets the connection between faith and practice.  

She enjoys and understands the importance of Eucharistic adoration — “this being an extension of the Mass” — but also longs for and misses the presence of God in the community. She gets the connection, yes, but worries that the two do not often come together: “Especially when it comes to being in the Church. I know that God wants me there, and to feel safe, but I feel more like I’m walking into a trap. A place where people will try to lay claim to me, as though somehow they could want me more than the One they are receiving. Who has done everything for them when I have done nothing. As if my acceptance of them is what they came for and not to find favor with God.” 

This “cry from the heart” speaks so much truth and the passion of a young person — one of thousands — searching for a spiritual home. Yes, the writer disclosed that she has been to 13 different churches in her area and still has not lost hope. The truth is, she is not alone. I have heard so many similarly pleas — not all of them spoken so eloquently — from many of her generation, that is so often written off as those “millennials” or “nones.” 

I don’t know how pollsters run their surveys, how they determine that someone they quiz has “no religious affiliation.” Would this writer “count” as “unaffiliated” because she has not yet found a spiritual home where the two essential elements of our incarnational faith come together: a belief and reverence for the real sacramental presence of Jesus Christ and a faith in practice that encounters him in community in our neighbor, especially the poor? All that the young woman seems to be asking is, where are the Catholics? So far, she is not finding many in any of the churches she has visited. 

Now it may be tempting to become defensive, to say for example, you just need to stay longer. But maybe it is more honest to admit that while most everyone reading this would love to have a young woman like this in our community, our local parish culture may not quite recognize her and her sisters and brothers. “I’ve found,” she says, “that most don’t know how to treat young people and may have good intentions.” 
So near and yet so far! 

One take-away from this reflection could be that, instead of becoming discouraged or falling for the temptation to over-analyze or to blame, we take to heart the message of last Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus is challenging us to let go of our idols and to put him at the center of our lives. In Semitic hyperbole, to be sure, he enunciates the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. As they say in the 12-step programs: let go and let God! 

Rather than seek to defend the ways in which “we” in “our” parish families “do” whatever, can we open our hearts and minds in the true spirit of “dialogue” — remember that? — and make room for a less grabby, less self-assertive, less-overbearing approach to evangelizing and welcoming the stranger in our midst? They may be our neighbor’s son or daughter, or maybe our own, who is not yet at home, but is seeking one, yes, as close as the house or pew we occupy.