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Challenges and Opportunities for Youth in the Church Today

by Dr. Michael McCallion

In the fall of 2016, Pope Francis announced the theme of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” which recently ended.

Part I  titled “Recognizing: The Church Listens to Reality” (Instrumentum Laboris), delves into what young people had to say about their faith lives and the Church as well as what many expert social scientists (sociologists and anthropologists) have learned studying youth. As the document states: “In this first step, we should focus on grasping concrete realities: social sciences provide an essential contribution which, incidentally, is well represented in the sources that are being used, but what they have to say is looked at and re-read in the light of faith and the experience of the Church” (p. 8). This article focuses on two themes found in this first section of the document, tradition and social media, both of which challenge youth and provide opportunities.

Sociologically, an ominous challenge youth face today is living in a cultural context of liquidity (explained soon) which deemphasizes tradition(s) and, moreover, promotes a social media that further undermines communal traditions. As the document states, “several non-Western Bishop Conferences are wondering how they can accompany young people in dealing with this cultural change that is unravelling traditional cultures rich in solidarity, communal ties and spirituality, feeling they do not have adequate tools” (p.11). 

Arguably, more than non-Western peoples are facing this unravelling. As Americans, we live in a culture that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman names “liquid modernity,” a culture that does not value stability, maintaining traditions, or practicing rituals that express and create familial, social, and ecclesial identity. Bauman, in other words, interprets the present cultural context as a sociological and cultural liquefaction where “it is now the facility with which things can be turned upside down, disposed of and abandoned that is valued most . . . we are all thrown into an unstoppable hunt for novelty.” In other words, all is liquid: family, community, faith, parish life—nothing is solid, stable. And where there is familial or social or religious solidity it soon vanquishes in wave after wave of cultural liquidity until we “forget” what was given us as gift—faith, family, and community (see also #63). One important and difficult challenge youth confront today, therefore, is maintaining traditions, both familial and religious, which previous generations (especially the baby boomers) let slip through their fingers. But how did traditions slip away?         

Baby boomers, like most Americans ,are regularly “on the go.” Notably, Americans get caught up in the cultural process of upward social mobility which often results in physically moving great distances away from families, communities, and parishes. A friend recently said he was moving to North Carolina because he liked the area. I remember telling him I would miss him. He said, “Oh, just come down anytime—we’ll still see each other.” No, we won’t! The distance between us will quickly begin to thin out our relationship. I will not see him every week at Church or in our golf league or at other local community events. I might text or phone him but that is completely different than seeing him in person. We seldom ask ourselves, young or old, what do I owe the family and community who raised me? Do I have obligations to the family, community, or parish where I have spent my life up until this point? Our American cultural value system of individualism answers this question with, “Hell no, go, do your own thing, find your own way, be your own person, you are not obligated to anyone except yourself.” In other words, disconnect, depart, leave (abandon) your family, friends, community, past traditions, and communal rituals that rooted you and gave you a sense of belonging.  Moreover, in physically leaving family and parish to sink temporary roots somewhere else, often far away, sociologists have found that one’s familial and communal narratives or stories slowly fade as well.  

As the liturgist Timothy O’Malley recently wrote: “liquid modernity reveals not a multiplicity of meta-narratives, opening up a space for religiosity. Instead, liquid modernity is the collapse of all narrative except for the angst-ridden individual, constructing the broken pieces of an identity from a series of fragmented memories. The result is broken marriages, broken politics, broken cities, a broken culture, and broken human beings. Forgetting, as it turns out, hurts” (O’Malley, 2018, Antiphon 22.2, p. 127). In slowly losing one’s narratives of family, community, and faith, the individual is left seeking a new identity and to be accepted into a new social community or local parish—a task not as easy as the American myth of individualism makes it out to be.

By physically moving (and in other ways), Americans are “conforming” to the longstanding and ingrained cultural process of upward social mobility, legitimized by the American value of individualism. I say “conforming”—because as the late sociologist Robert Bellah often commented—in “doing one’s own thing” one is not being different or radical but merely “conforming” to the American cultural value system of individualism (for most are doing the same thing). Ironically, this whole process of familial, social, and spiritual disconnection and dispersion sets one on an unconscious quest for exactly what one has walked away fromfamily, parish community, tradition, ritual practices, a place to belong. Why do we do it then? Because American individualism and consumerism perpetuate the devastating message “do your own thing,” which often means physically moving away from family, community, and consequently many traditional rituals that have shaped and formed us.  Indeed, in such a cultural context the anthropologist Bradd Shore makes the bold claim that the developmental trajectory of the middle-class American family is about to self-destruct. It is a developmental trajectory filled with social ritual practices of detachment, disengagement, separation, and isolation.  

The discipline of sociology has researched the consequences of social disconnection by compiling a body of work based on Emile Durkheim’s question (a founding father of sociology)—what is the optimal level of social connectedness? Initially, Durkheim’s question motivated many sociologists to study immigrants as most experience a severe rupture of their social bonds. Many of these studies document the consequences of such separation as mostly detrimental to individual and communal well-being. Indeed, Durkheim found a correlation between mobility and suicide: those who are more mobile experience less robust social connections (loss of community) and are hence more likely to commit suicide. Sociology has something to say to youth in that sociology is not merely a descriptive enterprise but also a highly political one in that it diagnoses and suggests correctives to the ills of society, primarily the loss of social cohesion or community and the multitude of forces that threaten to disintegrate the very possibility of the “social or ecclesial.”  

Durkheim spent a lifetime arguing that the “social” or communal is a SALVE to the traumas of liquid modernity and a place of solace in which individuals could feel themselves protected and morally unified.  So, Durkheim already was reflecting on the death of the social in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, he believed physically moving away from one’s tribe was a laceration to the social body—moving leaves the communal body bleeding. Mobility is a laceration because dispersed members are unable to gather and participate in the social ritual practices (religious practices) that provide identity and a sense of belonging in this liquid world. Liquid modernity, in Durkheimian terms, is the dark desert of anomie (normlessness or the infinity of desires) where dispersion is the new normal and everything is seemingly up for sale.

Youth today have the opportunity to be more conscious about “staying put” and upholding and honoring their religious and familial traditions more so than previous generations because we are more aware today of the negative fallout of mobility, moving away, separation, and physical dispersion. So, the message might simply be: Youth, be bold, don’t move. Make your local community, your local parish a better place. In particular, eat meals together, especially the Eucharist. As Jesus himself taught, we reiterate our stories at “table” and in doing so fulfill the human desire for solidarity.  A meal eaten alone is not a “meal.” As many adult baby boomers have learned from experience (although many still adhere to the American myth of individualism), it is not necessarily greener on the other side. As a baby boomer, the question I would like to ask today’s youth: What is so bad about staying put? Why do you have to move to prove who you are or find your identity? Consider that it may be more honorable to stay in the family and community you were raised in. And if staying put means continuing your father or mother’s occupation or business all the more should accolades be showered on you for maintaining the tradition. To carry on the Catholic faith, the family name, business, or parish, is honorable and should be applauded, for it is not only within one’s community that one finds identity, purpose, honor, and self-worth but also in continuing that tradition for the next generation. Physically moving often disrupts this whole process. Can youth today, therefore, see and understand this ingrained and often insidious cultural process of mobility for what it often is and then resist it?  


What is different today is the ubiquity of social media that tends to increase the liquefaction of society. As the document states: “The pervasiveness of digital and social media in the world of young people is evident. . . . The impact of social media in the lives of young people cannot be understated” (#34). Although the web has the potential to unite people across geographical distances, “the web can also be a place of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation, and violence, up to the extreme case of the ‘dark web.’ Young people are aware that risks are out there: the duplicity of technology, however, becomes evident when it leads to the development of certain vices.  The danger is manifested through isolation, laziness, desolation, and boredom” (#35).  

As my youngest millennial son says, “It is because we don’t use social media correctly – the fault is our own. Instead of us using it to gather information we go into our own little pods. Social media is a tool and we have used it to separate instead of unite us.” It is reasonable to assume that social media’s ability to create loneliness would only exacerbate the loneliness of physically moving. Why? Because using social media is establishing in youth ritual practices of separation and isolation in keeping youth attached to phones and tablets instead of physically being with others. The document formulates this situation: “superficial use of digital media exposes people to the risk of isolation, that can even become extreme: this situation is known under the Japanese term hididomori and is affecting a growing number of young people in many countries, especially in Asia. Another risk is withdrawing into an illusory and ephemeral happiness that leads to forms of addiction” (#58).

Communication among young people on the web is cultic in that it promotes only speaking to those who are similar to you. The bishop’s document agrees: “with the advent of social media, this has led to new challenges over the extent to which media companies have power over the lives of young people. Developing the ability to engage in sober conversation and dialogue with diversity is being hindered by this situation and becomes a real educational challenge where the young are concerned” (#35). Paragraph #56 elaborates: “today we have to realize that the way digital media work, and the need to choose which information sources to access amongst endless offerings, are leading people to increasingly make contact only with like-minded individuals.  Ecclesial groups, institutions and associations also run the risk of turning into closed circuits.” The document promotes the importance of offering formation on this topic, especially the delusional powers of social media to provide community or a sense of belonging.  

I have argued before about how the “parish” can help in this post-modern liquid society by providing community (Mosaic, 2014). Yet the document admits that even parishes have been affected by this liquidity in that “sometimes, parishes are no longer places of connection” (#21). Although that may be true, most parishes are places of connection especially if they have a full complement of clerical and lay ecclesial ministers who can make prayer and devotional opportunities available to youth as well as Christian service opportunities and other types of communal gatherings. Given this liquid post-modernity, where else will youth hear the message of forgiveness, love, kindness, and mercy other than the family? Nowhere. There is no other institution or local community like the parish that has the message of mercy and reconciliation at its core.  

The liquid society could easily be “more solid” if young people can find ways to resist individualism, especially in the form of physically moving away, and embrace the opportunity not only to stay attached to their family and parish, but to transform them into even more vibrant places of community, connectedness, reconciliation, worship and Christian service. Youth have the opportunity to form a youth group in the parish and to become part of the liturgical, catechetical, evangelical, devotional, and recreational dimensions of the parish—to infuse all aspects of parish life which challenge all of us to conform more completely to Jesus Christ. Sociologically, however, all of this is more likely to occur if youth take up the challenge and opportunity to stay put familially (moving out of one’s own nuclear home but staying within the local area), communally, and ecclesially (local parish).  Physically moving only means starting all over again. 

by Dr. Michael McCallion

Dr. Michael McCallion

Dr. Michael McCallion is the Fr. William Cunningham Chair of Catholic Social Analysis at Sacred Heart.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.