The rise of the “nones,” people who claim no religious affiliation, has pervaded just about every demographic in America, leaving many religious groups in a crisis situation where the future of their worship attendance is in question. A report from Pew Research Center, based on data from 2020, estimated that “nones” currently account for 30% of the US population, leaving religious leaders to determine what has led to this exodus from the faith and what can be done about it.
For the Catholic Church, which is already dealing with dwindling rates of religious vocations, the rise of the “nones” has become a threat. As the older generations pass on, there will be fewer young people left, which will lead to more church closures, parish mergers, and an overall shrinking of the Catholic Church in the US.
Father Casey Cole, OFM, is tackling these troubles, and he warns that things will not change without help from the faithful. Fr. Casey is a Franciscan priest who was ordained in 2019. His body of work belies his budding tenure as a priest, with three published books and two YouTube channels under his belt. This includes his very successful channel Breaking in the Habit, boasting over 300k followers, from which he released the video we are examining today.
Fr. Casey begins by recognizing that young adults drifting away from the faith is nothing new. For years it has been generally accepted that young people will tend to go their own way when they are first out on their own, returning to Church to find a stable foundation from which to build their families.
“More times than not they would return to the faith of their youth, leading some in our Church today to repeat the line ‘Don’t worry, they’ll come back. There’s nothing to worry about, this is the way things go.’ I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is simply not the case anymore. They’re not coming back and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can do something about it.”
He noted that a third of Generation Z now consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, far more than any other generation. Considering that only 40% of Gen-Z reported attending church services as children and just 42% attended religious education, Fr. Casey does not see this a temporary lapse, but the norm for a large swath of the youngest generation with adult members.
“For this generation, they’re not coming back, because they were never here to begin with. Unlike previous generations that could fall back on their childhood faith when they needed a strong foundation, there’s nothing for youth today, meaning that young people will not show up at our door … They’re going to get married outside the Church, have kids and not introduce them to the faith of Jesus Christ, and not think twice about it. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
The Franciscan firmly believes that “waiting for them to show up is not going to work.” God may quell the storm to help the faithful through, but when “we’ve got a major hole in the bottom of the ship and the water is pouring in,” it is up to the passengers to plug the rupture and put in the work bailing the water.
Fr. Casey points to the parables of Jesus Christ in Luke 15: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. These parables relate the message that “God’s loves us so much that when we get lost He will seek us out, come after us, and bring us home.” Fr. Casey, however, says there is another lesson to be learned through the guidance of Christ.
“Look at how the parable opens. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’ so to them, he addressed this parable. Who is the them that he’s talking to? Seems to me it’s the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders who were responsible for the faith of the tax collectors and sinners, but are instead caught complaining about them.”
Fr. Casey notes that directing Christ’s teachings to the Pharisees and scribes changes the interpretation of the parables. Just as a sheep cannot be blamed for going astray of the flock, those who have not been properly reached by the Church cannot be completely at fault for wandering from their faith. “It is the shepherd’s responsibility to go after them.”
The young man in the parable of the Prodigal Son ran from home and squandered his wealth. While he had free will, he was also a young inexperienced man, prone to making choices based on his immediate desires. We as a society, however, recognize that young people don’t always make the best choices and even if the fault were solely on him, he is still deserving of help to rise out of his dire circumstances.
“You’re not going to completely blame a teenager for the stupid stuff they get into, are you? At the very least, you are not going to expect them to get out of it themselves. Where’s the parent? How was he raised? I say that the father goes after him not out of mercy, but out of obligation. It is his responsibility.
“Jesus is looking directly at the scribes and Pharisees and asking ‘Why are these tax collectors and sinners lost in the first place? Wasn’t it your responsibility to shepherd them, to teach them, to care for them?”
The priest explains that this is the same responsibility that adults of the Church bear for the younger generations. That we must ask ourselves how we lost our kids in the first place and what we will do to get them back. Fr. Casey instructs that the first step to getting the younger generation back into the parish is to “accept that it was we who lost them and so it’s up to us to go find them.”
“My brothers and sisters, what we’re dealing with here is not a matter of being more welcoming to those who find their way to the Church, or creating programs that are more fun. It’s a desperate need for each and every one of us to take seriously our role as missionary disciples, to go out to the lost and to bring them back.
“If we do not devote our lives to this mission, yes this mission, if we are not willing to step outside the walls of the Church risking rejection and humiliation, how are we any better than the Pharisees and the scribes who looked on the tax collectors and the sinners with disgust?”
Visit Father Casey Cole’s YouTube channel Breaking in the Habit to hear more of his reflections on the faith and the Church.