November 8, 2019 — "Journeying with Youth” is one of the new Universal Apostolic Preferences. In his letter, Father General in fact called upon Jesuits and their colleagues to “accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future”, help them face the enormous challenges that makes it “difficult for them to find meaning in their lives and to draw closer to God.” But how do we look at young Canadians? What is their relationship with the Church? To find out more, we have attempted to paint a portrait of Canadians aged between 15 and 30 years old, their fears and desires and their relationship to the faith.
In short, we will see that while these young people, connected as they are to the wider world, are less religious than older Canadians—particularly in Quebec—almost half of them hold a fairly important place and a desire for some kind of spirituality in their lives. The Church therefore has an opportunity to meet them where they're at. Though the term “young people” used throughout this article is of course a sweeping generalization, it became the most helpful one when looking at this particular age group.
Young People Today: Fears, Desires & Institutions
After reading both interviews with Nathalie Becquart, a Xavier Sister from France, in the book “L'évange´lisation des jeunes, un défi" (Evangelizing the Youth: A Challenge), and studies by researchers in "Youth and Religion in Quebec”, three elements converge concerning religion and young people across the world: their connection to this world, their anxiety about the unknown and their different relationships with authority.
Young people are immersed in a media culture in which social networks play a large role. They are all interconnected and familiar with the rules of this universe of sounds, images, videos and music. Able to access vast amounts of information, 15-30-year olds show a great flexibility and capacity for adaption and are always making connections and asking questions. Through this universe of social media, they are in contact with the rest of the planet and 91% of them self-identify first and foremost as a part of humanity, rather than by their nationality or other identifiers. They also see the problems in the world (inequality, poverty, the environment) and are sympathetic towards them.
But young people, though open and connected, are also stressed. They lack confidence in a world that is constantly changing and sometimes seems unpredictable. Pain is a common theme for many of them. In developed countries, this is often an emotional pain, but elsewhere it’s more of a daily desperation brought on by a society incapable of giving them hope.
Finally, this new generation has very different relationships with authority, institutions and values compared to their predecessors. Their confidence lies primarily in affective relationships and in their friends, to the point that they question a hierarchically structured society. In a world where information and services have become more easily accessible, thanks mostly to the Internet, authority figures and traditional institutions are perceived as less important. Young people tend to put their trust primarily in a rich emotional life and their relationships with others.
Young People and Religion
In this context, according to the research, young people are hungry for meaning and coherence and want to live according to their values. Many of them experience a spiritual quest but have not always thought to turn to religious answers. Even when they do, they often do not know whether they will be welcomed and hesitate about taking the first step.
But young people are not entirely disconnected from religion. Nathalie Becquart has stated both at International Youth Days and in the field that:
Even though there are not many practitioners, certain young people show a lot of dynamism and a real missionary impulse. However, their ways of living the faith confuse older generations, because they grew up in the heart of a pluralist society where believers were a minority. […] They say that they don’t believe in God just because we told them to believe, but because they have experienced that faith in Jesus Christ brings them something, pushes them further and makes them happy.
- Nathalie Becquart
Nevertheless, many religious young people do not see any contradiction in calling themselves Catholic and not entirely conforming to the tenets of this religion. For example, they often engage in premarital sex and use contraception.
Religion in Canada
In 2006, a study performed by Statistics Canada on Canadians and religion showed that many Canadians declared themselves to follow no religion, while the number of people not attending religious services has risen gradually since 1985, particularly among young people (15-29 years old) and British Columbians. Yet, in 2002, 32% of young people engaged in religious practices once per week, while 24% practised on a regular basis. In total, 22% of young Canadians in 2002 gave religion a high importance, 30% a moderate importance and 48% a low importance. Although present, the secularization of young Canadians must therefore not be thought of as unique. Such a trend is equally found elsewhere, not only in this country, but also abroad.
However, this decline in religious activity is continuing. According to a 2019 study, while New Brunswick is the most pious province and has the most fervent believers, Quebec (followed closely by British Columbia) has mostly turned its back on religion.
In Quebec, francophones and under-35s were the least likely to say that they believe in God—Andy Riga, citing a survey by Léger Marketing.
We must therefore consider the question of Quebec in detail, for it could be a prophetic example of the changes, and the secularization, emerging today in Western societies. Having started here more quickly that elsewhere, studying this process might allow us to understand what is happening, and will happen, in the rest of Canada.
The Quebec Situation
“More than just a title, religiosity seems to be a good indicator for illustrating the distinct character of Quebec society,” wrote E. Martin Meunier in his essay on Youth and Religion in Quebec. The research suggests, however, that we must not believe that all religious feeling has disappeared from the consciousness of Quebeckers, citing for example the proliferation of new beliefs, although these exist alongside a pointed criticism of the clerical institution.
Also in the same work, Marie-Paule Martel-Reny presents the results of a study on religion among students in Grade 4 and 5 carried out in 2002. The results, though limited to 4 schools, show that the interest in religions and clerics remains present in the province.
According to these results “it is possible that the interest of these young people in Buddhism reflects their desire for a religion where they are welcomed as they are, which […] is very important for them.” The author also highlights the contrast between the fact that almost three quarters of the young people question believe in God or in a higher power, even when they are steeped in a culture where religious practice continues to become rarer and rarer. The comments gathered show a disinclination towards the institutional dimension of religion, which is preferred to individual communication with a "more accessible" God or a higher power.
I believe that in the 2000s, religion should evolve along with the opening of minds and the ways of life of people today. I’m talking particularly about Catholicism which refuses to allow divorce, homosexuality, abortion etc.— an anonymous student.
In another essay from the same work, Jean-Philippe Perreault states that even if young Quebeckers say that they are Catholic, many are further and further removed from the Catholic world. For instance, they practice their faith little, juxtapose heterodox beliefs without realizing any incoherence and only affirm their religious convictions with some difficulty. One quarter of them also claim to have never even skimmed through the Bible and the majority do not know the name of their bishop. However, he also underlines the fact that Catholicism is far from being dead in Quebec. There are spaces of vibrancy which, though often marginal, correspond with the new expectations of these young people. Often communities of faith (and not simply parishes), these vibrant spaces are places where young people can discover sharing, conviviality, simplicity and authenticity, such as centres and programs (like pilgrimages or artistic projects) and large gatherings like Worth Youth Days.
Encounters at the heart of life and the Church
As many sources have emphasized and repeated: the Church must embody this new era in order to accompany 15 to 30 year olds. According to a study cited by Nathalie Becquart, these young people do not want to be put into moulds. The prefer also often expect a more personal experience.
Those aged between 15 and 30 are less prepared than ever before to enter into predetermined communities or moulds because they want to be active participants in the spaces they are involved in and contribute to the processes which build and breathe life into these communal institutions. If we present ourselves to them as an indistinguishable, typical community, it won’t work. We must build the community around the individuals. […] What helps the most in making someone into member of the community are inclusive projects where everyone participates and finds their place in contributing towards building something bigger than themselves.
- Nathalie Becquart
As already mentioned, young people do not have the same relationship with authority and are immersed in a media culture. The Church must therefore not but itself at the forefront, especially in its media outreach. What speaks most to young people is the dimension of a universal diverse fellowship.
The Church should also meet young people at their level and adapt to them. For instance, it must respond to their desire to understand by explaining why the Catholic faith is still relevant in today’s world.
Young people want to be heard and the Ignatian tradition, based on a respectful listening to the freedoms of others, is well-equipped for this. Father Sosa’s letter on the UAP highlights this opening well: “the apostolic works of the Society of Jesus can make an important contribution to creating and maintaining spaces that are open to young people in society and the Church.”
Becquart, Nathalie, and Yves de Gentil-Baichis. 2013. L'évange´lisation des jeunes, un défi: Église@jeunes2.0 : entretiens avec Yves de Gentil Baichis. Paris: Salvator.
Gauthier, Franc¸ois, Jean-Philippe Perreault, et Liliane Voye´. 2008. Jeunes et religion au Québec. Québec: Presses de l'Universite´ Laval.