This past Sunday, July 14, I had the joy and pleasure of celebrating the Feast Day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha at her shrine in Fonda. Much as I eschew the assignment of labels by psycho-social theorists to entire swaths of people, the title “millennial” seems particularly appropriate as a way to approach an understanding of Kateri’s journey of faith.   

Terms like millennial, generations “X” and “Y” and “Z” seem in a constant state of revision, as scholars and wannabe experts actually get to know more about the mystery of the persons who keep breaking out of roles and stereotypes assigned to them. In fact, if there is one characteristic of the millennial that continues to surprise those trying to divine what makes them tick, it is their honesty, so easily demeaned as mere “earnestness.”

Simply said, millennials want the Truth. Not just “my” truth, your truth or even their truth — but THE Truth. They want real and relevant, not just make-believe and hand-me-down. Discovering the world all over again, without learning from history, of course, is risky. And there may be something to the critique that most millennials have never actually experienced a real war and the ravages of persecution, or its threat crouching at our heels. Perhaps some have been over-protected by well-meaning but hovering parents. But that may also tell, to some extent at least, why they want the truth, and no superficial fluff or coating. Even in church! 

One currently accepted birth-range timeframe that will get you to be called a millennial is roughly 1982-2004 (Howe and Strauss). In other words, if you were born near the year 2000 (second thousand-year period after Christ or “the common era”), you will be or have likely been labeled as such.

Don’t worry. Your life and its mystery is beyond definition as every one of us is unique and precious in God’s eyes. Even science (your DNA) proves it! 

Certain characteristics, however, seem to be quite common about young adults of our time that do seem to distinguish them from my own generation and that of my parents and grandparents. For one thing, many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” That is to say, they firmly believe in the goodness and dignity of every human being, tend (or trend) to be “pro-life,” feel free to question long-held beliefs and prejudices, and do not want to be sold a lot of “musts’ and “oughts.” 

While a certain freedom and casualness observed in their ways of living — for example, there is no rush to get married or even into “relationships” — they are no strangers to ritual in dress, food and career choices. This also leads to new bands of stereotyping, such as the common supposition that all millennials wear odd shoes and are inevitably techies and vegetarians.  

One stunning and unavoidable reality, however, that no one concerned about the practice of our Faith can ignore is that the fastest-growing “religious” group in the United States is the “nones,” that is, those who claim no religious affiliation. That would include a large portion of those we call millennials.

Almost 40 percent of those under 30 are nones and among Catholic children baptized or confirmed in the last 30 years, half no longer participate in the life of the Church. This according to the latest Pew Research Center survey. 

Why this is so will continue to feed conversation and controversy. At the risk of making my own generalizations or pretending to understand what ultimately is all about the mystery of human persons and their actions and relationships, I just want to offer a few observations for further reflection. 

One surefire miss for young adults these days is to answer their relentless questioning with “we’ve always done it that way.” Not that anyone in your church group has ever said this (chuckle), but young people are into everything, all over social media, and they are curious about everything. They have their own viewpoints and ask to be respected as partners in dialogue, not only as helpers in our pre-fabricated rituals and programs. 

Wow! That’s a mouthful. But for many who are seeking and inquiring, what they encounter in many church circles are ways of thinking, acting and even celebrating that seem fossilized and out of touch with where they “live,” with their thoughts, feelings and experiences.  

Kateri was a young woman who, as she approached her adolescent and young adult years, had already experienced much political and social upheaval, personal trauma and gratuitous suffering. The specifics, including the ravages of smallpox that wiped out her immediate family and horribly scarred her face, are a part of her story with which many of us are quite familiar. The tribal wars, which included exposure to pillaging, torture and the constant threat of being shifted around are not incomparable to what many young people today have experienced.

The battles may be more domestic, such as those preceding divorce, the scourges of substance abuse and much relocation. Estimates are that by the time they are 40 most young adults will have moved nearly 17 times! But the struggle with finding one’s own unique identity in a world that seems to impose it before its true nature is even discovered is almost universal with today’s youth. 

From her early teens, Kateri was pressured to marry. Yet she was looking for a larger loyalty. Attracted by the teachings and example of Christian witnesses, including the black-robed fathers, she was drawn to the mystery of suffering that the Cross was so centered on. While respectful of the native spirituality and activities of her clan, she was not, to put it into today’s terms, being spiritually fed. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that she was looking for Jesus to be the center and defining point of her life — even though she did not fully realize it at first — and not the identity a secular society would impose on her. 

Next week, I will continue on this theme: the relevance of the faith journey and struggles of Kateri Tekakwitha to the experience of many young people today. Like so many among them, despite the challenges and discouragement often thrown at her, Kateri always remained a determined explorer, gentle yet persistent in her search for the Truth.

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