Cover story -- Oddyssey years
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Issue Date:  December 28, 2007


Odyssey Catholics

Young and restless, tenuously connected to their faith


Justin Brandon has been weighing his options. The 25-year-old San Francisco resident recently applied to Stanford’s highly competitive MBA program, but even if admitted, he isn’t sure he wants to leave his job at Better World Books, the promising dot-com where he has coordinated online marketing since June.

Brandon isn’t used to feeling so content about a job. In the three years since he graduated from the University of Notre Dame, he has done extended volunteer work in Puerto Rico, served as a video production assistant at Notre Dame, shot documentary films in Ghana and Haiti, and worked as a search quality technician for Google in Silicon Valley.

“Every year,” he said, “part of me wants to move cities or switch jobs.”

Brandon and his restless ventures represent a generational trend among some young college-educated men and women who are free to choose flux over stability. Some social scientists have dubbed these post-college years the “odyssey years” -- a nomadic period when young adults move from one job to another, from one city to the next, delaying marriage, children and permanent career tracks longer than previous generations. Spiritually, they tend to be seekers, a characteristic that applies even to many with deep roots in a traditional religion such as Catholicism and no great desire to venture too far from the fold.

“Catholicism was a deep part of my experience at Notre Dame. It is what opened my eyes to the wider world. It sparked [my journey] and has influenced my way of going about it,” Brandon said.

According to a number of studies, the same holds true for a significant proportion of other young Catholics who belong to the so-called “Millennial generation,” the still-forming group that follows Generation X and includes those born in the period from the late 1970s to the late ’80s. These include 29-year-olds Nicole Shirilla and Ed Fians. Shirilla began medical school this fall in Pittsburgh after teaching in Baton Rouge, La., working in South Bend, Ind., and traveling to Rwanda and Sri Lanka as a filmmaker. Fians plans a springtime move from Chicago to New York City -- his second stint there, and the fourth time he will have decamped for a different state since 2001.

These three Millennials -- unwed at an age their parents are likely to have been married, and still discerning a career path several years after graduation -- believe that Catholicism has informed their journeys. And vice versa: Their journeys have informed their faith. In the fluid world of the odyssey years, their stories split and converge in fascinating ways on issues of religious practice, commitment, community and convictions -- all those things, in other words, that relate to their identities as Catholics.

Their stories reinforce the view expressed recently by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Citing the work of Princeton University scholar Robert Wuthnow, Brooks wrote that today’s children “graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself. Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging.”

-- Greg Tarczynski

Justin Brandon on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Justin Brandon
There are 96 parishes in the San Francisco archdiocese, but Justin Brandon questions whether he’d feel at home in any of them. To him, conventional parish life conjures up images of stuffy, oversized congregations.

“I have a hard time feeling like that offers me much in its traditional form right now,” he said.

That stance syncs with research done by William D’Antonio of The Catholic University of America, which shows that Millennials like Brandon struggle to connect with traditional Catholic practice. “Over a month or five weeks, you could say maybe half of them will get to Mass,” said D’Antonio, a professor emeritus of sociology and one of the authors of American Catholics Today, a recent book based on survey data first published in NCR. D’Antonio cites the work of theologian Elizabeth Dreyer, who observes that younger Catholics are seeking spiritual experience outside of church buildings.

Brandon, for instance, finds greater spiritual fulfillment through activities like the Loaves and Fishes program at the Newman Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where he and other young people prepare meals for the homeless. When he goes to Mass, he prefers a small Christian community as its setting. He describes a recent Mass at a friend’s home, where an Argentinean priest preached about his experiences working among the poor.

“Everyone was around my age,” Brandon recalled. “The friend sitting next to me hadn’t gone to church in a long time, and it really moved him. People are after community, and in so many places it’s just not there. Why attend a church that feels impersonal when your whole life feels impersonal, sitting in front of a computer?”

Brandon’s words capture the paradox affecting so many Millennials: the simultaneous pull towards isolation and interconnectedness. Young adults have grown up in the impersonal individualism of the information age, and in many ways embrace it. They feel at home with enormously popular Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, where they maintain what Brandon calls noncommital “loose affiliations” with a variety of acquaintances and issues.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing about recent encounters with Millennials still in college, noted, “I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be.” Brandon would attribute that lack of engagement to the Internet. Instead of joining a political movement, he said, his peers take the easier route of virtual engagement with people of similar interests on Facebook.

“We’re also extremely mobile,” added Brandon, who in his mid-20s has already visited six continents. “We can pick up and move easily. It creates a transient, self-reliant lifestyle where it’s easy to be superficial. But I think we still want to feel connected with our world and each other in a deeper way.”

According to another recent D’Antonio study (coauthored with Vincent Bolduc), the Millennial generation mixes “personal autonomy with new-found concerns for the common good.” More than other generations, they are likely to rely on individual conscience when making moral decisions than on the church’s teaching authority. But the church’s social teaching, particularly its exhortation to help the poor, strongly resonates with 91 percent of Catholic Millennials.

Millennials are demonstrating their altruism through ever-increasing involvement in community service, but they are also integrating it into their shifting career choices.

“I was at an entrepreneurial conference recently,” Brandon said, “and these older venture capitalists were amazed at how many of us [Millennials] are incorporating ways to give back in our business models.”

A good example is Brandon’s own work at Better World Books, which he describes as a “socially conscious alternative to” Run by a group of young entrepreneurs, Better World sells new and donated books online and uses the profits to fund literacy programs around the globe. At Better World, Brandon feels he can succeed financially, and help the needy as the church enjoins its followers to do. “I still try to live my faith every day,” Brandon said, “even if I’m not connecting to the institution in the same way.”

His recent experience at Better World has curbed some of his nomadic restlessness, but Brandon still sees odyssey as a necessary part of his life and his relationship to the institutional church. “In many ways,” he said, “I’m still exploring myself, and part of that is pulling away from what’s been comfortable for a long time, seeing what else is there, and maybe coming back.”

-- John Heller

Nicole Shirilla at the Catholic Newman Center on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh

Nicole Shirilla
Nicole Shirilla keeps a small plastic rose in her Pittsburgh apartment, a memento of a Christian community in Rwanda. It reminds her of her travels in developing countries and of the winding road that led her to medical school.

For Shirilla, like Brandon, her journey as a young adult began at the University of Notre Dame. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education, she taught high school religion in Baton Rouge, then returned to South Bend to help run a vocation initiative program for teenage and young adult Catholics. She traveled to India with a friend, where she visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. She went to Uganda with a group from her alma mater, and to Rwanda with a group from Catholic Relief Services. Later, on the basis of her skills as a video editor, Catholic Relief Services asked Shirilla to work with them in Baltimore, then flew her to Sri Lanka in 2004 to shoot documentary footage of the island’s tsunami recovery.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” the Youngstown, Ohio, native said with a laugh.

Mike Hayes, who works with Paulist Ministries in New York, marvels at the abilities of multitalented young adults like Shirilla and Brandon, and also at their restless search for answers. “They’re so good at so many things,” Hayes said. “They know there are unlimited choices. ... They get impatient, and decide after a short time, ‘Well, I didn’t figure it out along this path, time to go try something else.’ ”

Hayes is one of the founders of, an influential Web site for “spiritual seekers in their 20s and 30s.” He also recently published a book, Googling God (Paulist Press), about ministering to Millennials and Gen Xers.

“Young people make short-term commitments very well,” he said. “They do Teach for America or Jesuit Volunteer Corps for a year or two, then they move on. But the work is meaningful for them as Catholics. They don’t just get into social justice because the programs are short-term. They also do it because Jesus said to do it.”

“Moving around and traveling to these places have shaped my faith,” Shirilla explained. “Going to Mass in Rwanda, and spending time in India and in Sri Lanka ... those have been some very real experiences of a universal church.”

Even so, Shirilla concedes that she began feeling a call to commit to something more fully. Medicine had always intrigued her, and though she had none of the requisite science coursework, Shirilla determined to pursue it. It wasn’t an easy adjustment.

“There’s a certain amount of sacrifice involved in [commitments],” she said. “One of the things I had to give up in my decision was my freedom of options. By choosing medical school, I had to say no to a lot of things. And when you enjoy having so many options, there’s a fine line between exciting and paralyzing. In time, I saw that unless I chose, I really couldn’t ... make a difference in the world.”

Shirilla was pleased to find a wide range of ages in her medical class at the University of Pittsburgh. Many like her had taken a few years -- or longer -- to explore. At the university’s Newman Center, she found the sense of community that she feels is necessary for her faith. “That was the other vital thing I took from all these places I’ve been,” Shirilla said.

Now she’s deliberating whether to register at a nearby parish but wants the sense of community to be there first. “I can’t imagine surviving without that,” she adds. “I need that connection.”

-- David Kamba

Ed Fians in his apartment in Chicago

Ed Fians
Ed Fians attributes some of his generation’s noncommittal tendencies to the opportunities they were afforded as children and regards that abundance of options as both blessing and curse.

“We were allowed to explore for so long,” Fians said, “without having to craft ourselves into a very specific thing. That’s a great environment to grow up in, but when you’re 22 you think, ‘What now? I’ve never had to choose anything but my major!’ ”

Fians suspects many Millennials, accustomed to structure and support, simply freeze when they leave college for a confusing and sometimes hostile world. “A lot of people just feel lost.”

Growing up in Trumbull, Conn., Fians saw the church as one of those important support structures. “Everything I love about myself and what I do comes from the Catholicism of my childhood,” he claimed. “It’s the community I was raised in.”

But once Fians moved away, and as he moved again and again, the church’s relevance seemed to diminish for him. At a time when his own conscience was forming and questions formed with it, Fians stopped going to Mass because he says his faith stopped being a dialogue.

“It didn’t feel natural anymore to go when I was back home, either,” Fians said. “I didn’t belong to the community.”

That sense of community was rocked even further when his family’s pastor was removed for sexual misconduct.

“It put a real human face on faith,” he said, “and it wasn’t pretty.”

According to Catholic University’s D’Antonio, these factors in Fians’ departure aren’t uncommon among Millennials. “If you provide young people with a church where they can get married and baptize their children, most of them will never leave,” D’Antonio said. “But those who do think of leaving are usually repelled by the top-down ecclesiology or issues like the sexual abuse scandal.”

Though he has traveled less internationally than Brandon or Shirilla, Fians has uprooted himself the most frequently of the three. Since he graduated from Boston University in 2000, he has lived in Boston, his Connecticut hometown, New York and Chicago. In those places, Fians has worked at a deli, with a publishing house, as a copyeditor and journalist, and most recently was a graduate student. Soon he’ll move back to New York, where his girlfriend lives.

Several recent surveys show a growing number of postcollegiate Millennials floating, like Fians, between higher education and employment. Fians, who toyed with returning to school for years, enrolled in 2006 at the University of Chicago for a master’s program tailored to people like himself -- uncertain 20-somethings.

“At the end of a year,” Fians said, “I had another degree and a whole new set of questions.”

But the program gave one important answer, which is that he wanted to stick with academia. Next fall he’ll apply to doctoral programs in performance and theater studies.

Though in some ways Fians feels distant from the religion of his youth, he still values his Catholic background, and notices it surfacing unmistakably in decisions of his odyssey years. “It happens while trying to work around my commitment phobia,” he explained, “and when wrestling with that sense of calling.”

Now that he has confidence in a career track, and prepares to pursue a committed relationship in a familiar city, Fians finds himself looking forward to when he has offspring of his own -- a development that feels far less distant to him now than in his earlier, more nomadic days. He remains uncertain about a return to the Catholic church, yet when he considers whether to raise his child in a faith tradition, he becomes noticeably nostalgic.

“It would have to be Catholicism,” Fians said. “But at the same time, I can’t drop my kid off, I’d have to walk in the door with her. That means I would have to come back to the church, and what does that mean? Honestly, right now, I think I would want to raise my child in the church. I think I would start going back -- and I wonder what I would find.”

* * *

Note: The authors of American Catholics Today, in addition to William V. D’Antonio, are Dean Hoge, James Davidson and Mary Gautier.

Indeed, wonders Darrell Paulsen, a church professional well acquainted with Catholic Millennials, what will they find if and when they decide it’s time to engage more deeply with their church? Paulsen, who coordinates marriage preparation at the University of Notre Dame, hears frequent complaints from the young professional couples he directs. He knows that the Millennials are unlikely to hang around if they don’t find what they need, and parishes will be the losers.

“Lots of parishes put up walls to participation for young people,” he said. Among other problems, “they give them trouble for being away from the church, or for cohabitating.”

Yet, Paulsen insists, parishes can’t afford not to welcome these Catholics at a significant moment of “settling,” such as marriage, baptism of a child or the decision to put down roots. “People are out there,” he said. “They’re spiritually hungry, but they want a place where they feel nurtured, not just where they’re told they are wrong. If they think they’re going to be yelled at, or put to sleep or just asked for money, they’re not going.”

That, Paulsen suggests, makes for one of the few easy choices in a Millennial’s young life.

Greg Ruehlmann, 26, of Augusta, Ga., describes himself as “an odyssey Catholic” whose own journey reflects in various ways the journeys he writes about in this article.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007

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