The Catholic Church in Europe has a major problem—millennials. Adult millennials, defined by the Pew Research Center as people between the ages of 18 and 33, are leaving the Catholic Church rapidly. A 2013 study by the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, revealed that 65 percent of Catholic-raised young adults say they are less religiously active today than they were at age 15.
This trend is occurring around the world and in all religions. According to a 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, 25 percent of American college-age millennials (ages 18-24) are not affiliated with a religion. Only 11 percent of this 25 percent were raised without religious affiliation.
The situation is more noticeable in the Catholic Church than in other traditions, as the same study revealed that 25 percent of millennials who were raised Catholic no longer identify with the religion. The trend is most pronounced in Europe as the number of Europeans who attend weekly mass continues to drop while the number of Europeans who do not view religion as an important force in their lives continues to rise.
The decline in millennials’ interest in religion has affected three of Europe’s most Catholic countries—France, Malta and Italy. Over the past few years church attendance has declined in these three countries, especially in the milllennial generation.
The church in France has been hit hard by this trend, as a study by the French Institute of Public Opinion puts weekly church attendance at under 4.5 percent. Despite the statistics, some French citizens do not see the numbers as a reality.
Seventy-one percent of the French population do not view religion as an effective force in their lives.
Coco DupBrun, 21, does not identify with a religion but finds that his friends who do identify with a religion, especially his Catholic friends, are very dedicated. “I would say that [my Catholic friends] are really into the religion,” DupBrun said. “Most of them go to church every Sunday.”
Malta, Europe’s most Catholic country, with over 98 percent of the population identifying as Catholics, is also having difficulty maintaining membership and attendance levels.
This comes as no surprise to many people in Malta. Nathanael Grasso, 25, considers himself to be very religious. “I am a Catholic person. I go to church on Sundays and during Lent I even go to Latin services,” he said.
But Grasso notices that his peers are going to church less and less frequently. “Many Maltese youngsters don’t go to mass every Sunday,” he said. “They don’t like the homilies. They think [the message] is too old.”
Mason Fraley, an American priest from the Archdiocese of Denver, who has studied religious philosophy, participated in “The Rome Experience,” a program sponsored by Opus Dei priests, this summer. During this program, Fraley was able to fully witness religious life in Rome.
While in Rome, Fraley found it difficult to verify the statistics on decreased church attendance and disinterest in religion.
“Judging the church-going population in Rome is difficult because it is a pilgrim/tourist city,” Fraley said. “From what I came to understand, the churches in Rome-proper are mostly considered to be ‘tourist churches’ by the Italians, and the regular, stable parishes with regular, stable parishioners exist closer to the outside of the city.”
Fraley also cited the lack parish registration, which is popular in the U.S., in the European church. “Europeans in general do not have a culture of parish registration, which is more of an anal-retentive disposition of American bureaucracy, so relying on such methods for judging attendance is also largely unfair and inaccurate, in my opinion,” he said.
Although Fraley was reluctant to read too much into the statistics, he did find a change in attitude towards Catholicism. “It seems to be widely acknowledged that the "Catholic phenomenon" seems gradually to be receding into the periphery of European social and political life, and there is evidence of this,” he said. “For example, native Europeans clearly having little sense of what to do in sacred places—most churches are treated like museums rather than houses of God consecrated for prayer, people bringing their dogs to Holy Mass, and divergence of national social/political policy from principles which are consistent with a well-formed Catholic conscience.”
Fraley believes that the decrease in Catholic conscience and religious activity among millennials could be the effect of baby boomers leaving the Church. “The baby boomer generation has fallen away from the Church in droves, and so hasn't handed the faith on to their children, and if you don't teach your religion to your children, they don't have a chance to embrace it as readily,” Fraley said.
The lack of millennial interest in the Church could also be correlated to what sociologists call “detachment from institutions.” When young people leave home at around 18 years old, they tend to stray from religion or other institutions they were a part of during their youth. Typically when these people enter into adulthood and begin to raise a family of their own, they “reattach” to their old institutions, including their religion.
This sociological trend is seen widely in Malta. “The 24 to 35 year gap [of people not being active in the Church] is the most noticeable, before [that age group] it is okay, after that age group it is okay,” said Fr. Carl-Mario Sultana, professor of religious education at the University of Malta and delegate to the Archbishop of Malta.
“[Young people] might pass through a time of crisis in their religious faith and practice. They can come back. They could be in a time where they are passing through this crisis and they could say ‘I do not consider myself Catholic.’ Then after some time they come out of the crisis and they come back and then they say again, ‘I consider myself Catholic,’” added Fr. Charles Tabone, a senior lecturer of sociology at the University of Malta and also a delegate of the Archbishop of Malta.
The real concern for the Catholic Church comes if this “reattachment” does not begin when millennials start to settle down.
The video was added to this post on January 23, 2015.