For the past 15 years, the Church has experienced a surge of young members who have embraced orthodox Catholicism. This is simply undeniable. While solid numbers are hard to come by, anyone who runs in Catholic circles can verify the point anecdotally, and at least three books have recently been written on the subject. Furthermore, polls of young priests and seminarians—such as the one conducted by the Los Angeles Times a few years back—show that our newest priests are measurably more faithful to traditional Catholicism than were their predecessors. The most encouraging part of this is that we appear to be at the beginning of a trend.
This both fascinates and disturbs much of the mainstream media. On the one hand, it’s a great story: Enthusiastic young men and women, eschewing the baubles of modern culture in favor of a religion that dates back to the Roman Empire. But at the same time, the secular press has had just about enough of Christianity, thank you very much. It doesn’t help that many of the priorities of the young faithful run counter to those promoted by the secular world.
And so, unable to dismiss the phenomenon altogether, they cleave to any patronizing explanation they can find: These young people are just going through a rebellious, counter-cultural phase. Or, they were only attracted to the charisma of Pope John Paul II. Or again, in a relativistic culture, the youth are searching for anything that offers them meaning. Throw in an “expert” analyst—the cadaverous Rev. Richard McBrien, say—to tut tut the new movement, and they’ve completed the package.
It’s not that these explanations are entirely wrong, they’re just incomplete. Yes, young people are attracted to the counterculture, and Catholicism certainly qualifies. And John Paul Il was both charismatic and tireless in bringing the youth back to the Church. And an empty, consumerist culture does tend to send people looking for something greater than comfort and convenience. But these explanations don’t touch on the main reason for the surge among young Catholics: the magnetic quality of truth.
Catholicism isn’t attractive because it’s merely countercultural; it attracts because its unique claims are true. The truth has a way of speaking to our hearts, of satisfying the hunger in the human condition. The secular world looks at the Church and sees outdated rules, harsh moral strictures, and dead rituals. But Catholics see a truth that alone has the power to liberate us from the boundaries of our own self-involvement. The truth, after all, will set us free.
But the secular world no longer believes in truth, and so it has locked itself in a cage of self-gratification—if there’s no ultimate truth, then what’s left but the pursuit of pleasure? They’ve blinded themselves and now claim there’s nothing to see.
Interestingly enough, the return to traditional Catholicism is occurring in all age groups. The surge in young Catholics is simply more noticeable because youth culture is typically centered around excess and pleasure-seeking. (Turn on MTV if you doubt.)
This is what the young Catholics have rejected. Over 400,000 of them flocked to World Youth Day two weeks ago. This should be inspiring for all of us, for while it’s a cliché, it’s nevertheless true: They are the future of the Church. For the past 40 years, faithful Catholics have struggled against a liberal theological ascendancy. But now, that trend has reversed. Dissenters are getting older, and their ranks are no longer being replenished. The gaps they leave in parishes, chanceries, and universities will be filled with this rising, faithful generation.
In this war, as in all others, the victors will outlive the vanquished.