Why do so many millennials become Catholic? It’s not because they’re hipper than thou, and it’s certainly not because they’re holier. Michelangelo’s writhing, unfinished statues of slaves, struggling in their prisons of stone, are a picture of millennial converts to Catholicism: broken and banished from Eden, stuck in the fallen flesh of Adam, yet baptized and brought back into the family of God. They are an unfinished product. And they are home. How did this happen?
They are the generation that came of age amid Discmans, WWJD bracelets, Promise Rings, and “See You at the Pole.” Their childhoods witnessed the rise and fall of Tetris and Bible sword drills, Beanie Babies and light up sneakers. They entered puberty just when AOL screen names were at peak popularity and CCM was off the charts. Churches everywhere were dropping the -Baptist and -Church from their names to be more Seeker-Friendly. As gasoline prices plummeted to baffling lows, their parents drove them to youth group lock-ins at “Woodbridge Congregation” and “Prairie View Community” in sport utility vehicles. Their first rock concert was a Christian band no one has ever heard of, and they ended their relationships after reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye. They pierced their navels, their cartilage, their eyebrows, and covered their Bibles in stickers.
Then they went to college and more than a few of them discovered that C.S. Lewis drank beer. And they found out that dating isn’t one of the seven deadly sins. And the Dark Ages were not at all dark. And, as they watched the first installment of Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), they began to feel that perhaps there was something more to this world—more even to Christianity—than they had ever imagined. It was that one scene, the one where Gandalf visits Minas Tirith and reads the scroll of Isildur, either that or where Strider almost crosses himself when he sees Galadriel. It changed everything. It changed the way they watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ (2004) three years later. Nobody wanted to read Chuck Swindoll or Joshua Harris anymore. The last CCM album anyone bought was Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown. They were either turning up Sigur Rós or blasting monastic chant. They were either reading Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis or dog-earing pages of the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas.
In the end, most of them became spiritual but not religious Jesus Followers. Some drove back to Prairie View Community to be seekers. Others “discovered” tradition and social justice and liturgy—liturgy and the sacraments and the “deeper magic still.” And then came those innumerable hoards who went “all the way” and became Catholic.
The exact number of millennial converts is known only to the data-graphing investigators and their stockpiled statistical compendia, but I will put forward one anecdote: why do so many millennials become Catholic?
Why did the most expensively catechized Protestants since the Reformation become, of all things, Catholic? Now, long tomes could be written as to why millennials convert to Catholicism—and also, if this essay were about a different topic, why many “cradle Catholic” millennials leave the Church—but I just want to zoom in on one reason: What if Catholicism is true?
What if millennial converts simply discovered that the stereotypes and caricatures are false and the real thing is true, and then they did something about it? It’s not that those who swim the Tiber are smarter or have better taste: it’s just that they struck the mettle of the Church and heard the ring of truth—not the hollow thud of a glittering fake.
“Ugh,” someone almost always says. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but this guy’s tone. He talks as if everyone who isn’t Catholic is missing out.”
It’s true, if you’re not yet Catholic, you’re missing out. It’s also true that “emerging adults” and “young adults” (honestly, they earned these qualifiers) have very sophisticated palettes. They accept only the most anodyne statement, served with a soupçon of mustard, and presented in the most equanimous tone. But the biggest Catholic convert of 1922 put it this way: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right, do we? What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” Truth always has a sharp, pungent taste, especially when it’s free of the artificial stimulants of political correctness and the hormones of humble-sounding qualifiers. There are few left who can abide a clean sentence, a straight line; fewer still who will admit they believe whatever they happen to believe because it’s true—not privately, sort of true for me, but real, public truth for everyone, truth for adults.
Millennial converts can be annoyingly confident about Catholicism, but don’t forget that they’ve just had their previously cherished beliefs reduced to shreds. Accuse them of being arrogant and closed-minded if you must, but they’re not exactly pointing to themselves here: they’re pointing to the Catholic Church. They’re Michelangelo’s unfinished statues, the Church is the chisel. Can they help it if they’re excited about getting hammered into the shape of something bigger than themselves? Though the sharp blade of truth is tempered with love, it still cuts straight and deep.
No snowflakes here
Just when folks thought the last of the votive candles expired in the dark chapels of Catholicism, the loud ping of a millennial’s coin in the offering box echoes through America like a gunshot. Where did all these post-modern peasants throwing away their pills and practicing Awesome Family Planning, living the liturgical year and “offering up” their sufferings in smoky haze of incense, come from?
Theories abound: fight-or-flight, it’s trending, medieval superstition is a hard spell to break, not everyone can be among the elect, before the silvered tureen of the Pope’s theological snobbery yet another generation falls like grouse to the gun. Twas always thus, and always thus will be. But seriously, how did it come to pass that the generation of carefully groomed critical thinkers could produce so many Catholics?
The answer, as we have seen, is simple. Millennials become Catholic for the same reason everyone has always become Catholic: because it’s true.
In this regard, the generation of unique snowflakes is utterly unoriginal. Every generation has seen people from around the world run into the open arms of the Church. “Young adults” appear pretty late on the scene, and history is not impressed by their phones and pour-over coffee brewing methods. Catholicism isn’t a special millennial thing. This is, after all, the faith of their fathers.
They’re prodigal sons pulling into the driveway after a disastrous road trip. They barely made it home. But still, they are home, and not just because they read Scott Hahn’s classic, Rome Sweet Home. It’s because home is where the heart is—the immaculate heart of Mary, and the sacred heart of Jesus, and the heart of the Father who saw them, even while they were still a long way off, and ran to them and threw his arms around them (Luke 15:20).
“Honeymooners,” somebody almost always says. “When the clock strikes midnight you’ll realize that Catholicism is nothing but a big pumpkin!”
While the world waits for the autobiography of the real Cinderella, I’ll just head over to the parish right down the street where there’s a priest in apostolic succession lifting up the transubstantiated Body of Christ, and kneel as we join the Son in his eternal oblation to the Father in the loving bond of the Holy Spirit. I’ll just be thanking God that although I’m not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath his table, he’s invited me to sit with the family of God, a “son in the Son,” and enter into the mystery of the most adorable Trinity. Who could refuse such an undeserved gift?
I know, it’s horrible. But it’s not that I’m right; it’s that the Church is right. Are you?