The Pope Has an Eager Audience in Youth

A new survey shows that younger Catholics are more in sync with pre-Vatican II practices.


When Pope Benedict XVI arrives this week for his six-day tour of the United States—a trip that will include a meeting with the president, several speeches and public masses, and a visit to ground zero—many Americans will inevitably compare him to his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II. But if Benedict lacks the obvious star power of the "people's pope," particularly among the young, the visit should reveal a deeper affinity between the shy, scholarly pontiff and many of America's younger Roman Catholics.

In matters of belief and practice, a new survey shows, regular mass-attending Catholics of the millennial generation (born after 1981) tend to be more in sync with pre-Vatican II Catholics (born between 1943 and 1960) than with post-Vatican II Catholics (born between 1961 and 1981). Known for his emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition, Benedict may well find that the younger members of his flock are among the most sympathetic.

Conducted in February 2008 by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the survey of 1,007 self-identified Catholics found that regular mass-attending millennials are almost as accepting of church teachings as pre-Vatican II Catholics. And in some respects, their practices identify them as the most traditional.

For example, millennials are the most likely of any age cohort to follow Lenten practices, whether abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent or receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. They are also the most likely to say that devotion to the saints is very important to their idea of being a good Catholic. They are as likely as pre-Vatican II Catholics to say that Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and they are among the most inclined to say that the Eucharist is very important to their religious practice. While they are even more prone than pre-Vatican II Catholics to say that they are at least somewhat involved in parish life, pre-Vatican II Catholics still attend mass more frequently.

There are striking and even revealing differences between the oldest and youngest cohorts. The former tends to know more about church teaching and obligations, but the latter tends to be better versed in the Bible. So even while the millennial Catholics seem to distance themselves from Vatican II reforms, they have absorbed some of Vatican II's ecumenical spirit—including a more sympathetic view of the Protestant emphasis on Scripture.

While few American Catholics now doubt Benedict's power as a teacher, even some millennial Catholics worry that his intellectual style will leave many younger Catholics untouched. "He is very good and clear at catechesis—at clarifying every dimension of Catholic belief," says Jessica LaFleur Malm, 29, director of youth and adult programs for the diocese in Sioux City, Iowa. But she tells about a friend who came away from World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, feeling no real connection with the recently elected pontiff. "The youth need warmth and catechesis," says LaFleur Malm. "I would like to see him try to be more of a friend of youth."

That may be expecting a lot of a reticent, scholarly figure. But at least Benedict comes with a message that many young Catholics are eager to hear.