By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — A new study finds that while young people are experiencing heightened levels of loneliness and isolation as a result of social distancing, they are not experiencing a decline in their faith.
Among those surveyed, 35 percent of respondents said that they are actually experiencing an increase of faith, and 46 percent attested to having developed new religious practices.
Yet while Church leaders may be relieved by that data, 50 percent of those who’ve attended an online service also reported they don’t have anyone to talk to about how they are feeling, and 44 percent report feeling isolated because no one has reached out to them.
Further, clergy or faith leaders account for less than one percent of those adults who’ve reached out to young people, who represent what the study labels one of the “most lonely and isolated generations that have ever existed.”
In addition, the survey found a severe lack of trust in institutions. On a scale from one to 10, over 60 percent of young people rank their trust level at five or lower for a range on institutions, including organized religion, with religious practice not offering a “protective effect” against the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
The full study, “Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation,” was released this month by the Springtide Research Institute, surveying 1,000 young people between 18-25.
In response, Paul Jarzembowski, who oversees Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told The Tablet the findings are a call for a greater pastoral response to isolation and loneliness among youth and young adults that was already an issue before the pandemic, which has only exacerbated the concerns.
“We need to reach out to them and support them during this time, and even beyond this time of social distancing, as its impact will certainly be felt for years to come,” he said. “This global health crisis will likely be the defining moment in the life of youth and young adults today. We cannot underestimate it as we consider how we best reach out and minister with young people.”
Sister Nathalie Becquart, a member of the Congregation of Xavières, who was the first woman to serve as the Director of the National Service for Youth Evangelization and Vocations in France, told The Tablet that the study’s data is consistent with similar studies released in recent years.
Sr. Becquart observed that while young people strongly value connections and friendship with their peers, “they also need adults who are figures of reference for them.”
She said this is not only consistent with the latest study – which found that “when a trusted adult outside their house connected with young people, nearly eight out of ten report feeling less lonely” – but also resonates with the conclusions from the Vatican’s 2018 Synod of Bishops on Young People, of which Sr. Becquart was an auditor.
“Young people express strongly how they need to be accompanied to choose the right course in this complex and uncertain world. They look for mentors who can walk with them and help them to discern how to live a meaningful life, that is for most of them a life of encounters, a life of friendships and fraternity, said Sr. Becquart. “They emphasize horizontal communications instead of vertical communications and experimental approaches instead of theoretical approaches.”
Jonathan Lewis, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington and also an auditor at the Synod, concurred, telling The Tablet “the number one way to pass on the faith is through thick relational ties.”
“It’s what Jesus did when he called people by name and it’s what still works. It’s just that in our culture that’s increasingly challenging for engaging young people along that process of faith,” said Lewis.
“Emerging adults and young adults are some of the most transient, if not the most transient population, in the history of the United States,” he continued. “As a result, churches have a very difficult time knowing them and maintaining relationships.”
Lewis said that one of the major challenges is that parishes are “built to maintain neighborhood relationships. That puts people who don’t have a mortgage or have kids at a neighborhood public or parochial school, at a disadvantage,” he said.
Jarzembowski encouraged faith leaders to get creative in age of social distancing, but also not to forget the basics.
“Just making that one-on-one connection can go a long way towards reversing these trends. That means making a phone call or writing a hand-written letter to a young person,” said Jarzembowski. “Church leaders can also host digital meet-ups for youth or young adults in their area. They can offer online sessions about spiritual and practical tools to cope with loneliness, economic uncertainty, grief, and loss.”
Similarly, Sr. Becquart said that pastors and faith leaders need to engage the “concrete issues” faced by young people in their daily lives.
“During this pandemic we can observe that the main concern for many young people is unemployment,” she said. What are our faith leaders doing to launch new programs to young people in need?
She said that by providing concrete responses, a relationship of trust will be developed that will help create a space for young people “to also to share also their existential and spiritual questions and to express their feelings and difficulties.”
Looking ahead, Jarzembowski said that it’s incumbent upon Catholics to examine their own lives to see what they can do to respond to the needs of young people. He pointed to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “Christus vivit,” written after the Synod on Young People, as a reminder that this is something the pope sees as a priority.
“Those of us who are no longer young need to find ways of keeping close to the voices and concerns of young people. Drawing together creates the conditions for the Church to become a place of dialogue and a witness to life-giving fraternity,” wrote the Holy Father.
“We need to make more room for the voices of young people to be heard: listening makes possible an exchange of gifts in a context of empathy,” he continued. “At the same time, it sets the conditions for a preaching of the Gospel that can touch the heart truly, decisively and fruitfully.”