The Catholic Church is bleeding out. Twenty-somethings who inherited the faith are straying as Christian vices, like premarital sex, social media-backed vanity, and capitalist gluttony increasingly make the backbone of youth culture in 2015. Three million American Catholics shed their religious convictions since 2007, and for every one Catholic convert, six leave the church. It's entirely possible that, if you tell your friends you're skipping brunch to drag your hungover meatbag to Church, they will leer at you with confusion.
Despite our strong tendencies toward hedonism and liberalism, by and large, Americans dig Pope Francis. His holy 78-year-old mug has become ubiquitous (even arousing). On last week's trip to the United States—the fourth Papal visit ever—the pontiff boldly addressed the global climate crisis, immigration leniency, and abolition of the death penalty—all issues that urban American youth hold dear. Papal celebrity is running rampant on the internet and devotees followed his every move with online "Pope Trackers."
While it's become increasingly difficult to lure young Catholics to the pews, millions still forego bottomless Sunday mimosas for church.These faithful worshipers look a bit different from their parents, though. A recent Pew Research poll reported that 23 percent of Catholics don't think abortion is a sin, while 39 percent don't believe homosexuality is a springboard to hell. Many hold true to the conservative teachings of the church, which are antagonistic to the increasing liberalism of our generation. Yet others ask, as Pope Francis did in 2013, "Who am I to judge?"
VICE interviewed young Catholics in New York preparing for His Holiness's visit. These Catholics, who ranging from missionaries to LGBTQ folk, explained how their religion is, to them, the perfect medicine for millennial disenchantment, a way to become more accepting of difference and, surprisingly, a countercultural identity.
VICE: How did you come into your Catholicism?
Xorje Olivares: I was born in Eagle Pass, Texas. It's very Mexican-American. It's on the border. All my life all I've ever known is being Catholic. It's so much in line with the Mexican-American identity. When I was seven, I started to be an altar server at my local parish. It's something I've actively chosen to stay a part of, considering everything. My mom and her friends, they say, find it interesting that I still continue to go to church. There's no one keeping an eye on me. I can do whatever I want. But the one thing I've kept is going to mass every Sunday.
There's [been one time] in the last five years I haven't gone to mass. I'm going to the Papal Mass [in New York].
You must be so excited!
I don't think it'll hit me until I'm actually in line. Ten years ago, I went to World Youth Day in Germany. My little youth group in Texas went to see the Pope. I feel like my quest to see this Pope is so much easier. We had to fundraise a year and a half to see the other one. We're a small, poor Mexican community. We did plate sales, Krispy Kreme donut sales, to have enough money to even afford the flight. We didn't even stay in a hotel. We only had enough money to stay on the floor of a school. Being in Germany, the last night with Pope Benedict, we slept in a field with literally a million people waiting for the mass. The idea of carrying your burden, your cross, that's what that journey was. This one, they picked my name out of the lottery. So I'm going to see the Pope.
There was a lot of reflection and journey associated with my Germany trip. My parents didn't know I was gay then. My friends did. This time around I'm so open about being gay, being Catholic, being Latino obviously.
How do the various facets of your identity interact?
I was very lucky in that I was included in a documentary called "Owning Our Faith." For four and a half of my five years in New York, I went to the church across from my apartment in Washington Heights. It's a very Dominican neighborhood. The whole idea of Latino life there is that, whether they are or not, they appear to be less accepting of LGBT people than the general public.
What do you mean?
I don't want to speak for all Latinos, but the community you're growing up in when you're Mexican-American has this idea of machismo. You are the macho man. Because of all of the straight-male-centric portrayals within the church, it goes hand-in-hand with the fact that there's a priest, a bishop, a pope. A lot of the Eucharistic ministers and people associated with the church when I was growing up were manly men. Straight men are seen as that authority figure in the household, or the household being the church. I was never comfortable being out in the parish I went to in my Latino neighborhood because of those implications.
'It's so refreshing to have a Pope that people—Catholic or not—can respect.' —Lauren Bishop
How did you find your current church?
I randomly went on an OkCupid date with someone else who was Catholic. He went to a parish that had an LGBT group. I thought, That's absurd. It turns out to be this parish in the city. Had I not moved to New York, I would still probably be a closeted parishioner in my hometown church. It's just not the kind of environment that is, at this moment, welcoming to openly gay people.
I don't think I'm going to hell because I'm gay. I've tried to be a good Catholic, I go to mass, I follow the teachings. I'm not a hateful person. There are so many things I think I do right even though the church hierarchy thinks I'm doing something wrong for being gay.
Christine Mykityshyn, 26
VICE: How do you stay in touch with your faith at a time when many forces are pulling in the opposite direction?
Christine Mykityshyn: You kind of learn to identify where God is speaking to you. For all intents and purposes, I have a great life—but I needed something more. I see us surrounded in a narcissistic culture and it's exhausting. Everyone knows that there's something a little more, but not everyone's as willing to explore it. It's hard. Faith is a hard thing.
What do you mean?
In my young 20s, I drank the Kool-Aid of the media. I think it's easy to only let the bad about Catholicism jump out at you. I'm very "pro" the use of birth control. That's an issue that I know what the church would say about it. I questioned that and how applicable it is to my life. I felt unwelcomed by the church because I felt one way and the church felt the other way. I felt like there's no room for disagreement.
'Being gay isn't what the church has an issue with. It's acting on sexuality before marriage. I discerned after college that God was calling me into marriage. But for me, that meant marriage to a man.' —David Summers
How did that play out on a personal level?
I wanted to know why other Catholics believed what they believed. Because from where I'm sitting, it was crazy. But my faith never wavered. I never felt like I didn't want to be a part of the church. It was just obvious that I didn't understand it.
How is Catholicism nourishing to you as a young woman in New York?
Most twenty-somethings in New York operate as complete independent agents. It's you, you, you. It completely discounts the importance of a community. Not just your best friend you go to brunch with every Sunday. I found the most beautiful community in that group. People I never would have met or spent time with.
Has anyone ever written you off for being Catholic?
No. Surprisingly, people find it really cool. I never felt discriminated against. I either get the condescending, "That's so cute—you go to mass, oh my God, like, every Sunday? Or they say, "You don't seem like a Catholic girl."
What's that supposed to mean?
My question exactly.
Lauren Bishop, 31
VICE: How did you come into Catholicism?
Lauren Bishop: I was baptized Catholic in Texas. At age 12, we moved to Denver, where we went to a Catholic church. I didn't feel like I was Catholic. I felt like people knew things that I didn't. I just did them—I didn't know what they meant. But I came to New York when I was 22—I was just doing my 20s, having fun. Church wasn't my priority until I went through RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults].
What made you decide to do that?
I didn't make going to church a priority. I was hungover, I was whatever. But I thought, I'm missing a little something here. I needed to get in touch with something bigger than myself. New York is a very narcissistic, individualistic, fast-paced environment that can lead you far from any faith, not just Catholicism.
How did it feel reconnecting?
My favorite thing about going to church here is that I hear the city sounds, the taxis the honking, I hear New York, but somehow, among all this crazy New York action, 50 or 60 people decided that at 7 AM they wanted to come together at church. There's something that's so powerful about that. It feels like you're not alone in this crazy city.
Are you often judged for being Catholic?
I grew up in Texas. Everyone goes to church. You talk about God, you have faith—it's just what you do. In New York, I found myself being a Republican, Christian, from the Midwest and South, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I had to stand up for my beliefs and explain them. I felt like a minority. People are very quick to judge, especially when I check all of those boxes, what my social beliefs must be.
Are there ways in which your lifestyle is incongruous with your faith?
Absolutely. I think that to be Catholic is to struggle. I think there's some misconception that to be Catholic is to be perfect—it means that you don't have sex before marriage, you don't believe that gay people can get married, you don't believe in contraception.
But you do think those things.
Absolutely! While there might be things stated in the Bible, if you dig a little deeper, they all come from a really good place. A place of unconditional love. I love that this Pope has come out and said, "Who am I to judge?" I use that line.
Has this Pope made it easier for you to be Catholic?
I use what he says as talking points that I can put in my back pocket and share with people to help them understand. It's so refreshing to have a Pope that people—Catholic or not—can respect.
Ryan Noll, 23
VICE: When did you realize you wanted to be a missionary?
Ryan Noll: I was in prayer one day, in Eucharistic adoration—where we place the bread in a golden frame and we adore, we sit and we pray—and I had an overwhelming experience of God's love. I thought that, if everyone in the world felt like this at one time, the world would be an entirely different place. It was simple. God said that you have to tell them that this is available, my love is available.
I like to think of myself as countercultural. I don't think it's particularly popular to be Catholic today, or to hold true to Catholic teachings. I also like to think that I'm countercultural in that students who go through the university system often come out feeling manufactured. They've been put through this system where they have to check the boxes—you come out with a job, then a family, and then they save for retirement and then they die. I didn't want to be a part of that system that our society puts forth. I wanted to do something different. It is radical to step out of that system and take a couple of years to do full-time mission work.
Were there any people you looked toward to embolden your decision?
Pope Francis is amazing. I think that he's approached the culture, society, Catholic teaching with a warm tone. I wanted to be a part of that. It's a really exciting time to be Catholic, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, even though it may be unpopular at times. I think he's just really inspiring in terms of how he encounters people who seem to be on the outskirts of society: the poor… I remember him visiting a women's prison… [I like] the ways he goes out of his way to really encounter people where they are—to run toward the barricades when he comes through town. That's inspiring to me. That's why I want to be a missionary—I want to encounter people in a similar way.
I've heard a lot of stories about professors at NYU being on their students about how Catholicism isn't real. I think being Catholic is countercultural. —Elizabeth Wade
I know he's been more accepting of refugees and LGBTQ folk, too.
It's interesting. Pope Francis never changes Catholic teaching. He can't. His role is not a political one—it's more of a representative one. He's not changing the message, but the way in which the message is heard.
You're describing migrants, LGBTQ folk, imprisoned individuals, as outsiders who are also deserving of God's love and the Pope's time. Would you be in favor of a movement that brought these people into the fold, instead of viewing them as outsiders in need of grace?
When I say outsiders, I'm thinking in terms of society putting them on the outside. The Catholic Church has always desired to bring them in the fold. If you mean, by "bringing into the fold," approving of gay marriage, I don't think the Catholic Church will ever do that. I don't think it can. God doesn't change so therefore the church cannot change. But if you mean showing them the love that they need as human beings with dignity, then of course.
Elizabeth Wade, 21
VICE: Is being Catholic a radical decision today? Would you describe Jesus as a radical?
Elizabeth Wade: He's a radical! I was thinking today, what would I have done if Jesus just came, now, and I was Orthodox Jewish. And he just changed everything. I'd think he was a crazy person, too! Have you heard the story of the Samaritan woman? Jesus goes up to this woman at a well. He's talking to her, and this is unheard of, because Jewish people don't interact with Samaritans at the time and a man speaking with a Samaritan woman was a scandal. He was just opening the faith up to everyone and giving everyone the opportunity to find love, this true love. What would happen if he came and changed everything? He wasn't as concerned with the rules as much as he was concerned about how to love people as much as possible.
Is that exclusive to the Catholic faith?
I want to share my faith and my truth with everyone. I think there is one truth. Everyone needs to come to terms with that. I believe that the Catholic faith is the one truth. People are obviously going to disagree with me. But I don't think that should inhibit the greater good. I think a lot of people are focused on being right.
Have you had difficulty being a Catholic in 2015?
The Fashion Institute, where I study, has so many different types of people, so everyone's so accepting. It's different at NYU. NYU has professors who want to get on you about Catholicism. I've heard a lot of stories about professors at NYU being on their students about how Catholicism isn't real. I think being Catholic is countercultural. A lot of Western society has been moving in a certain way.
Have you had experiences that have forced you to challenge your faith?
I constantly have struggles, honestly. Even last year and through the summer… there's a lot of things to question about it. I got to a point last year that was either nothing or Catholicism.
Were you doubting your belief in God?
I've been brought up this way my whole life. Do I believe that the Eucharist, when I receive it, is actually the blood and body of Christ? That's a crazy radical thing to believe. I thought that I really needed to be sure, because I'm not gonna be fake about it.
Do you think that it is?
Yes, I do. I've come to feel confident in saying that's what I believe. When I was questioning it, I came to a standstill. I was at a point where I realized that people have so much understanding about a good way to live. Jesus has to kind of piece your heart then. There's not really a way to believe that all these moral things are right without believing that the core isn't right. Either you can believe and die and nothing happens and you haven't lost anything, or you can believe and it's all real and you've gained everything.
Not enough young people think about truth.
Rodolfo Mancila, 24, and Janard*
VICE: Does your Catholicism mean something different in America?
Rodolfo Mancila: I think so. My family is very Catholic. They go to church every week. That's what I was grown up to. When I got older, I stopped going as much.
Is this a part of your heritage or more something you believe?
Rodolfo: It's something I feel like I have to do because it's part of my family. If I get married, I have to do it through a Catholic church because my sister did that.
Janard: I'd just get married at City Hall.
Rodolfo: Nah, I'd go to a church.
In 2015 it's kind of a hard time to be Catholic right? People are talking about contraception, sex, gay marriage.
Janard: You don't have to believe it, bro, but my sister got married as a virgin. I swear. Knock on wood. She had her veil on. For real. She's devoted. I was in church three weeks ago.
Rodolfo: When did you last confess?
Janard: I wanna say my first communion.
Rodolfo: That's the last time I confessed.
So why's it hard to be Catholic?
Rodolfo: Technology, social media. I was raised differently from people here. I came here when I was nine. Religion is a staple in Ecuador. I don't follow it as much here.
So social media affects your religious beliefs?
Janard: It just shows the wrong things.
Rodolfo: I follow a devoted Christian [online]. I feel like there should be more of that. But I just see parties, you know, online.
People don't put their faith online so much.
Rodolfo: Yeah, they just put stuff that will catch people's attention. They won't put religion on.
Janard: Women just put their bodies up.
Do you think people are embarrassed?
Janard: It's just not cool. Yeah, but why don't you post that you're seeing the Pope tomorrow?
Rodolfo: I don't know. I am witnessing history. It doesn't happen very often. This is once in a lifetime.
You're seeing the Pope!
Rodolfo: I have a close friend who told me to sign up for the lottery, to put my email down, to go see the Pope. My father saw the Pope back in Ecuador in his early 20s and so I thought, Yeah, I ought to see the Pope. He saw the Pope, Pope John Paul II, shook his hand and blessed him. I thought that was really cool.
By seeing the pope do you feel like you're participating in your heritage and your connection to your dad?
Rodolfo: Yeah. My mom's going, my sister's going, my father's going. So you know what? I should go.
What's the hardest vice to avoid today?
Janard: Marijuana. Just because it's legal in some states. Or women.
Oh, women are vices now.
Janard: Yeah, you wanna go to church, there are girls there! I have friends who say that.
Do you think God created the earth?
Rodolfo: Yeah, absolutely.
Janard: I feel like because I took AP sciences in school, I don't.
If you hadn't taken AP courses?
Janard: Probably not.
VICE: How did you come into your Catholicism?
Sarah Mutchler: My parents are both Catholic and so they raised me Catholic. But I wasn't always as faithful or devout. I didn't know the beauty as intimately. My parents got divorced when I was super young. It was when my mom had this huge reversion, this coming back to the faith, when it changed a lot of things. That planted a lot of seeds in my own life. I was kind of a wild youth. I started drinking pretty heavily by the time I was 12 or 13. I would hang out with an older crew. We would just get alcohol and drink in like backyards, basements.
You're a missionary now. What changed?
It was a very, very slow process for me. The beauty of God, he's such a gentleman, he's so gentle and patient. It took a lot of time. Going to mass, encountering the Eucharist. That's the bread you receive during mass. We believe it's the body and blood of Christ. I was getting into drugs, experimenting, having unhealthy relationships. But I was going to mass on Sundays and feeling, whenever I saw the Eucharist, this love I could not explain. At this point actually, I didn't know that the church thought that [the Eucharist] was Christ. No one told me that it wasn't a symbol. I just didn't know. That's a huge problem in the church. People legitimately don't know that it's Christ. Some people think it's a symbol but it's not.
I fell in love with the Eucharist, but at the same time, didn't trust that God would be enough. There's this quote from Saint Augustine, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet!"
I went to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Millions of young Catholics come together for a mass. The Catholic youth world comes together to encounter Christ. I had just gotten out of an unhealthy relationship. I didn't have anything holding me back from embracing him. I was able to be confident that God was enough. He is enough. He is the source of all my desire and he will fulfill all of my desires.
People describe Pope Francis as progressive, as far as Popes go. What are your thoughts on that?
It depends on what that means. It's interesting for me to see the way in which the media has clung to this issue. I don't believe that the Pope has been any more progressive than any of the last Popes. In his manner and charisma, he is different, but as far as implementing new doctrines, or new ways of thinking, I don't think he's been more progressive.
David Summers, 30
VICE: Tell me about a time when your faith was challenged.
David Summers: Being gay and Catholic has certainly been the biggest challenge. It was a challenge, obviously, because of the church's teaching on homosexuality, but I like to say on sexuality in general. Really, being gay isn't what the church has an issue with. It's acting on sexuality before marriage. I discerned after college that God was calling me into marriage. But for me, that meant marriage to a man.
What do you mean?
"Discernment" is a process of being open to the Holy Spirit in one's life. Often we hear priests talk about a call to priesthood. I had a call to marriage. I always felt that, through discernment and prayer with the Holy Spirit, that I was being called into marriage, into life with someone, that life on my own wasn't what God intended for me.
When you discerned that, were you frightened? When you realized this, it was not a time when gay marriage was quite as possible.
That's a large part of why I moved to New York. I knew that if I was going to find a community where I could openly discern that process, it wasn't going to be where I was in the Midwest. It was hard leaving—I loved where I worked—but there was this part of me that was miserable knowing that I couldn't actively, in my community, seek what I was feeling that call to.
How did you go about searching for someone?
I didn't go after online dating and I wasn't a part of the [gay] scene. My husband I met at church. We were both in the same choir at our Catholic church. I sat on one end with the basses, he sat on the other end with the tenors. We didn't speak to each other for three months. We were there every week together. He had been single for a while and had been scoping me out. He actually thought I was straight. A few months later, we ran into each other at a gay bar. He Facebook-friended me that night and asked me to hang out. It really did catch me as surprise.
How did your faith in God play into that?
It really did. Two weeks after I moved, He put this person in front of me. Once a week, in the presence of Jesus and the Eucharist, I was worshipping with him and didn't even know we'd be married.
Perhaps conservative Catholic folk would ask why God would bring two gay men together. They might say that it wouldn't be his plan, he wouldn't oversee their marriage. What would you say to that?
I think people spend a lot of time playing God. I don't think that we can know the mind, the heart, the being that is God. A set of teachings set up by humans over the course of 2,000 years, since when Jesus was on Earth, that is God to people—the set of teachings is God to people somehow. Therefore they can answer for God. But the church knows that it's a moving, breathing, living being. The church does change. It's hard to be on the front end of that. This is a new question for a lot of people. I do think he placed us together.
What was your wedding like?
Obviously we couldn't wed in the church. We had a small ceremony in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with mostly church friends. We had 20 people. Very spiritually based. Because we believe so firmly that we are recognized in the eyes of God, not the church, we wanted it to look as much like a Catholic wedding as it could without pretending it was. We had a priest. He couldn't sign the marriage license. My husband plays guitar. We're both singers. My husband's family was very against us being together. We didn't invite any of our family. It was too complicated. We knew that, for us, there was already so much stigma involved that we needed that day to be beautiful for us and beautiful for God.
*Janard declined to give VICE his last name or his age.