Why are millennial Catholics flocking to the church their parents deserted?

Brexit, the growing housing crisis and a sense of unease are making young people turn to religion in a different way from their parents

‘These are the children of the precariat’

You’re walking up Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow on a Saturday night. As you approach The Garage nightclub, you briefly make eye contact with some young people. They step forward to meet you: what do they want? Are they selling something? Handing out fliers? Asking for a light? As it turns out, that last one is closest to the truth, as they offer you a candle and ask if you would care to light it in a nearby church.

That is the invitation being extended by a group of young Catholics to the people on the streets of Glasgow and other cities around the country. It’s an initiative called Nightfever and, while that may sound to some of us like a seventies disco throwback club, for these twenty-somethings it’s a bold way of sharing their faith with others. Not that there’s any coercion, hard-selling or forced conversions involved.

I have nothing but admiration for these young Catholics

Anyone who takes a candle is welcomed inside the church, which is illuminated only by other candles and they are invited to spend a moment in silence or prayer, perhaps listening to the music which is playing softly. And that’s it. You can light your candle and go or stay as long as you want. People often think of churches as chilly rather than chilled, but it’s remarkable how many people, regardless of their beliefs, find that the stillness draws stuff up from the well of their hearts. Dotted around the church are people, some of them priests, who are happy to listen if someone wants to talk.

As a priest clinging on to my forties by my fingernails, I have nothing but admiration for these young Catholics. It takes courage to stand on the street and approach total strangers in this way, especially on a Saturday night. I very much doubt I could do it.

And therein lies the issue. I belong to their parents’ generation, one more or less lost to the Catholic Church: far from being indoctrinated, we wouldn’t know doctrine if it bought us a kebab on the way home from a night out. In school, RE was the ‘catch up on your homework’ period (or marking, if you were the teacher): one year, we were made to copy out the whole of Mark’s Gospel in our jotters, turning the Word of God into a very long punishment exercise.

But not these young people. These are people who have grown up under the pontificates of Benedict and Francis and whose reaction to the word ‘Catholic’ is not to cringe or blush, blighted by unflattering stereotypes or the self-inflicted shame of the abuse scandal. Instead, these are intelligent and articulate young people who can hold their own in pub debates or a workplace interrogation. My generation would probably slink away or put our hands up, but not they.

These young people have looked at what has become of their world in the past 50 years and realised that, far from the earthly paradise sold to their grandparents, they are children of the precariat. This is not just a condition of socio-economic instability, but of moral and ethical drift which actually makes orphans of us all. Many ascribe the steady rise of populism to a widespread sense of powerlessness and futility, not least among the young. But it would be unfair to claim that these ‘new young Catholics’ are the product of a retrenched and backward-looking spirituality.

They are, for the most part, sane and sorted: when they speak about their faith, you don’t hear the grinding of ideological axes whirring away in the background. If some of them find meaning and nourishment in more traditional experiences of prayer and worship (such as the so-called ‘Latin Mass’), that doesn’t mean that they are any less serious about living out a commitment to justice and service of the poor than their guitar-preferring elders.

In an age when factionalism and isolationism seem to be on the rise, they are proclaiming the message that the word ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’, ‘belonging to the whole’. It’s that conviction, I believe, which gives them the confidence to go out into the streets and the other spaces they inhabit with an identity which is robustly – but not aggressively – Catholic and to invite others to sample a little of that.

Moreover, I know that other Christian churches are experiencing something of a similar phenomenon, although perhaps with a different inflection.

As for the Nightfever phenomenon, if you come across them in the street, or they you, be nice: don’t slag them off. Better still, take a candle and go with them. If for no other reason than it will give you a brilliant story to tell on a Monday. “Guess where I ended up on Saturday night?” Picture the faces as you say: “In church”. Boom. That’s quite a mic drop.

Rev Dr John Bollan is a Parish Priest of St Joseph's, Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow

Main image: Semilla Luz/Flickr