When Molly Mattessich served as a Peace Corps volunteer two years ago in the West African nation of Mali, she relied on audio tapes of Sunday Mass to stay connected to her Catholic faith during her two-year tenure in the predominantly Muslim nation.
"It was the first time I'd ever been without an organized Catholic Church," said the 27-year-old, who now lives in Washington, D.C. Mattessich, who had sung weekly in a Newman Center choir during her years as a Wellesley College student, drew strength during this challenging time from her favorite church song, "Be Not Afraid." "It became my mantra during my time in the Peace Corps," she says.
But after a few months, tapes and mantras weren't enough to sustain Mattessich's Catholic connection, and she now identifies her Peace Corps years as a spiritual turning point. "I listened to the same services over and over, and it became hard to keep up without the community," she says. "I started journaling a lot more, and I thought, 'Hmm, I can sort of live without this, maybe.'"
Complicating matters further was Mattessich's growing awareness of the lack of church leadership roles held by women, which began to trouble her more and more. Witnessing the widespread effects of AIDS in Africa caused her to question the church's teaching on contraception. Then, after she returned to the United States, her favorite Boston parish closed. It was the last straw.
Mattessich says she "almost never" attends Mass anymore. When she does, she harbors negative feelings toward what she experiences.
"When I go to Catholic services now, I think, 'Oh my gosh, you people have no connection to reality,'" she says.
Mattessich has decidedly relinquished her place in the pews for the time being, and a multitude of young adult Catholics have chosen to do the same. Whether their absences stem from a disagreement with church teachings or the seductive powers of the Sunday paper, for the church, the widespread lack of engagement among its younger members is an inconvenient truth whose underpinnings are hard to discern.
Missing in inaction
Only 24 percent of young adult Catholics attend Mass every week, while 21 percent attend two to three times per month, according to a 2005 study conducted by sociologists William V. D'Antonio, James Davidson, Dean Hoge and Mary Gautier, authors of the forthcoming book Catholics in America: Their Faith and Their Church (Sheed & Ward).
According to the same study, 80 percent of young adult Catholics believe they can be a good Catholic without attending Mass weekly, a belief that differentiates them from their parents' generation, many of whom wholly internalized what they were taught as children: to miss Mass was a grave offense, even a mortal sin. While some may criticize younger adults for not being particularly reflective in their given reasons for not attending Mass, it's worth noting that many baby boomers and their pre-Vatican II predecessors attended weekly Mass without much reflection on their motivations for attending.
Kevin Burns, 27, a currency trader in Providence, Rhode Island, counts himself among the more than 55 percent of young adult Catholics who do not regularly attend church. Burns acknowledges that Catholicism no longer holds the pivotal place in his life it did during his childhood, which was formed by regular CCD classes and four years of Catholic high school education. While Burns says he drifted away from the church during his college years without much reflection, as he grows older, it's ideological disagreements that have kept him away. He cited a few incendiary homilies he heard in his hometown parish that were characterized by what he perceived as overly fearful attitudes toward modern science and pop culture.
A July 1 New York Times article, which quoted a senior Vatican official's call for excommunication of stem cell researchers who utilize human embryos, troubled Burns further. …