When it comes to religion, a report described the millennial generation, those currently between ages 18 to 33, as “relatively unattached to organized religion.”
“It’s insane how many students lose their faith in college,” said Jessica Harris, director of evangelization of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, across the street from Colorado State University.
Twenty nine percent of young adults identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” in “Millennials in Adulthood,” a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center. This was at or near the highest level of religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that Pew has been polling on religion.
Bucking that study, St. John XXIII reported that student weekly Mass attendance has doubled in the last four years—from about 300 students to 600 on a typical Sunday.
The parish attributes the uptick in participation to making campus ministry that provides Catholic students “their own personal identity in the faith” a priority. They have a team of five fulltime Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries, a campus minister and will add a second campus minister this summer.
Photos by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic
“Students are craving something to call their own,” Harris said. “A history, a tradition, a community they feel safe in. The Church can provide that.”
When arriving at St. John XXIII almost four years ago, pastor Father Rocco Porter, bumped up the number of weekend Masses to help accommodate students’ busy schedules, as well as prioritized a return to orthodoxy in the liturgy.
“(Many are) increasingly drawn to high church traditions,” Rachel Held Evans wrote in the CNN blog post “Why millennials are leaving the church.” “Precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
There are now six Masses each weekend at St. John XXIII, including a Latin extraordinary form, a Byzantine liturgy, one with praise music, and a “traveler’s Mass” at 8 p.m. Sundays for those returning from a weekend away. There is also a weekly candlelight Mass celebrated Thursdays at 9 p.m.
“Father Rocco (Porter) pulls out all the stops for this,” Harris said, “candles, bells, incense.”
Some 200-250 students attend the candlelight Mass each week.
“We win the world by beauty,” Harris said, “by taking the time to make things beautiful.”
Building on beauty and a priority of prayer, the parish recently established a perpetual adoration chapel.
“Students are happy to take a 3 a.m. hour in the chapel,” Harris said. “The response has been overwhelming.”
The hourly commitments have been filled by a combination of students, St. John parishioners comprised of about 700 families, beyond the student population; as well as other Fort Collins parishes including St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Holy Family.
The parish also builds community by being a gathering place for students 24-7, a place to find “Catholic friends.”
“The church is open 24-7 as a study space,” Harris said of a secured room, with a kitchen, converted for student use. “They’re in there studying and cooking together, making study snacks.”
Photos by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic
Students have access to a theology library, Bible studies and other classes, sacramental preparation, retreats, service projects, pro-life events, and speakers geared towards topics of concern to them such as divorce and birth control, at the Theology on Tap series. Parishioners prepare a free meal for students every Sunday after 5:15 p.m. Mass at “Sunday Night Suppers.” On campus, the Aggiornamento Institute sponsors a lecture series.
“We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness,” Evans wrote. “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
> St. John XXIII Parish students
Attend weekend Mass: 600
In Bible studies: 400
Attend Sunday Night Suppers: 300
Attend Thursday candlelight Mass: 250
Student faith leaders: 100