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We Asked Millennial Priests How They're Courting the Least Religious Generation

Millennials are the least religious generation yet, but at the same time, there's a resurgence in millennials becoming priests.
2016 maj 26, 5:30am

Priests hold up their smart phones at a Pentecost mass in the Vatican. Photo by Giuseppe Ciccia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the wake of scandals in the Catholic Church and a growing rejection of traditional values, a record-low number of young people consider themselves religious. Millennials are less likely than any previous generation to pray, attend services, or consider religion an important part of their lives, according to the Pew Research Center. And attempts to connect with young people—like "rock churches," or the priest who started accepting confessions via Snapchat—haven't exactly sparked new interest in religion.

And yet, at the same time, there's been a resurgence of millennials becoming priests. Since 2000, the number of 25- to 29-year-olds studying in seminary schools in the United States has increased by 36 percent, according to research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Now, more than 75 percent of priests are 34 or younger.

VICE interviewed several of these millennial priests to understand how they approach religion in 2016. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy of Parker Sandoval

Father Parker Sandoval, 34
Resurrection Church, Los Angeles

VICE: Do you see a generational gap within the priesthood?
Father Parker Sandoval: I'm thirty-four, and the other two priests in the house are seventy-four. It's like working with your favorite grandfather. I see some great blessings in that, because they come with so much experience and wisdom from many years of priesthood. At the same time, I'll make some suggestions, and they're open to it.

They can look back at fifty years and say, "Oh my gosh, what a mess. I remember when twenty years ago masses were full, thirty years ago couples were still marrying in the church" and so on. I'm entering into this situation and I say, "Wow, what opportunities. The old system is broken. Can we try something new?"

"If the people are out there in cyberspace, then the gospel should be there, too." — Father Conor Sullivan

Catholicism seems alienating to a lot of young people. How do you get around that?
[There's a] sense of alienation from the church, especially among our young people. If you look where we invest much of our resources, our space, our time, it's to adults. We spend our time answering questions that nobody's asking, especially for young people. Their questions are a lot more difficult, and a lot more fundamental. And I don't think we, the church, are really in tune to all of their questions.

Do you see the perception of the church or the priesthood changing?
I think Pope Francis has projected a refreshed image of what it means to be in the church, in a language that people can understand. He speaks by gesture. He speaks with images. I think he's rebranded the image of the church—not its content, but our image. But ultimately, I'm convinced the future of the church—including its perception—is largely in the hands of the laity. I hope my generation can continue to infuse in the life of the church.

Photo courtesy of Conor Sullivan

Father Conor Sullivan, 27
St. Francis of Assisi, St. Louis, Missouri

VICE: I've heard you read your homilies off an iPad—is that true?
Conor Sullivan: I'm a product of my generation. I use all of this technology because I know what I'm up against. I come from a generation that has grown up with nearly constant stimulation. We live in a very noisy, nonstop culture, so every occasion to speak publicly is actually a competition for people's attention. While I don't use technology during mass—even I have my limits—I typically spend a lot of time trying to write homilies that will capture people's attention, engage them, and communicate the gospel effectively. Outside of mass, I use whatever means I can in order to get that message across. Social media is definitely on that list. I have my own personal accounts that help me evangelize. If the people are out there in cyberspace, then the gospel should be there, too.

What do you think young priests bring to the church?
You might expect me to say, like: "Young priests bring a lot of energy to the church." Sure, true enough. But on the other hand, if you ask a young priest why he became a priest in the first place, you might find that there is more depth than that. Entering the seminary right out of high school these days is difficult. We have to swim pretty hard against the current of the culture, and a lot of people discourage us along the way. Our generation doesn't like commitment. I think we grew up seeing a lot of people fail in their commitments, and we ask ourselves: What's the point? I think a young priest is a contradiction to that mentality.

Do you think your generation of priests approach the church differently than older generations?
If there is a difference, it probably stems from the different atmospheres we were in when we entered seminary. These days, younger guys are typically more traditional. You'll see young priests in their cassocks [ankle-length garments worn by clergy members], and you'll find that a great many of them like Latin in the liturgy and beautiful old art and architecture. Some critics of this new crop of seminarians and young priests have objected to me, "You young guys just want to take the church back in time, back before Vatican II." I typically respond, "I'm not interested in going backward or forward. Just upwards, toward heaven."

Photo courtesy of Brad Doyle

Father Brad Doyle, 28
St. George Catholic Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

VICE: What do you see young priests bringing to the church?
Brad Doyle: I think I see young priests bringing an energy, definitely. That's one of the reasons I entered seminary and thought about the priesthood. Any kind of person who's new in a profession tends to be a little more relatable to the youth and maybe just, you know, fresh. My goal is to stay fresh, to stay relevant, to stay on fire.

Do you see a generational gap in the church?
I think there's a generation gap [in religion] in as much as there's a generation gap in the whole world. Priests nowadays [have to] understand a different language. It's the language of digital, the social media, very quick soundbites. I think the style has to be different. It's got to change, because people change. We see that with Pope Francis—and that's interesting because he's not of my generation—he's on Instagram, on Twitter. He realizes people want to hear directly from him. I think that style has to manifest in the priests.

What is something you've learned from an older priest and something you've learned from one your age?
One of the older priests told me, "No one will remember [the homily] by the time the week's over." A great homily someone might remember for like, a month, but you go visit people in the hospital, and they'll remember it for their entire life. It's the importance of being present to people in moments and not just speaking to them. I've taken that to heart.

What I've gathered from the experience of younger priests is that people desire truth. They desire to hear what the church teaches, and not your own interpretation of it. A lot of the younger guys are realizing that the young church and young people in general, they're sick of being told what they want to hear.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Kerns

Brother Bryan Kerns, 27
The University of Chicago Divinity School

VICE: Do you think people coming into religious orders and the priesthood are different than their older counterparts?
Brother Bryan Kerns: I think that there are two main differences: The first is that the younger cohort was largely not formed in the kind of wars in the church after the Second Vatican Council, and elsewhere in the culture. We don't have that history. We're just living in the church of 2016.

The second main difference is that the older priests and brothers that I know were formed entirely in a world where the church was everything—the church was school, it was social life. It was an enclosed system, for lack of a better term. People of my generation are much more comfortable in a world that has a lot more pluralism religiously, culturally, ethnically, socially, politically. I mean, in the 50s and 60s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen had one of the highest-rated television shows, every week—that would never happen today. People don't even watch TV. Maybe if he were on Game of Thrones, but that's about it.

Many young people today have opinions contradictory to what the church teaches. How do you handle that?
Those are important topics to be discussed and debated, but that's not everything that the church teaches. There's this idea of three transcendental notions: the true, the beautiful, and the good. Bishop Bob Barron wrote an article once, and he said something like, "You can't start with the true, with propositional truths. You have to start with something else." He proposed to start with the beautiful. You bring people into churches, you bring them beautiful liturgies, and then you bring them to the good—to community, to conversation, and only then can you start talking about truth. And I think that provides a good enter into how to engage with young people.

I was at a parish recently that would be considered pretty traditional liturgically, and the place was packed with mostly young people, which was fascinating to me. I wasn't expecting that. There's a spiritual yearning in our generation that needs to be addressed, and I think the church can address it—it just has to figure out how. And I think we're still trying to sort all that out.

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