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Young Catholics respond to a chance to shine.

There are a lot of differences between the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. Ambrose Catholic Church and the regular morning Masses at other local Catholic churches.

The first is the late-afternoon timing, which is preferred by young people who like to sleep in or have other activities during the day. The most significant difference, however, is that the church is packed with teens and young adults.

They greet churchgoers. They lead the procession into the church. They read and bring the gifts for the priest to prepare the Eucharist. They help distribute Communion and play music.

Congregations such as St. Ambrose are the future of the Catholic church in the United States, say prominent church observers and researchers.

A historic shift in attitudes and practices--including a steep decline in Mass attendance--among Catholic youth raises concerns that coming generations will be much less likely to be part of parish life, sociologists say.

One researcher predicts that the number of U.S. Catholics will decline by one-third in the next generation; others predict smaller but significant drops if the church does not adapt to younger Catholics who have to be persuaded--rather than ordered--to attend Mass.

In a new book, American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church, four leading sociologists say young Catholics--in an affluent society with little anti-Catholicism, and in a church that has emphasized the development of individual moral consciences over rules--need to be won over.

"They see it [the church] as only one of many possible means to help them meet their own needs," write William D'Antonio and Dean Hoge of The Catholic University of America, James Davidson of Purdue University and Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied

Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

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What young Catholics want is to be meaningful participants rather than passive consumers in religious life, say youth workers.

"Teens want to belong," said Fr. Andy Turner, associate pastor and youth minister of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Wickliffe, Ohio. "We need to bring them to a sacred place."

Since the 1960s, all churches have competed with massive social changes that encourage individual autonomy over respect for institutions.

Unlike many mainline Protestant churches, Catholic membership has increased, from 46.2 million in 1965 to 64 million in 2005. Catholics have remained relatively steady at about 23 percent of the U.S. population.

Hispanic immigration is responsible for much of that growth. Sociologist Mark Chaves of Duke University says more than half of Catholics under 10 today are Hispanic.

At a recent joint meeting of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologists debated whether young Catholics will stay in the church.

Pierre Hegy of Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., predicts U.S. Catholics will decline by a third in the next generation as the distinctiveness of being Catholic disappears. "Today, religion is a choice, a cafeteria choice," he said.

The American Catholics Today book relies on five national studies of Catholics since 1987, including a 2005 Gallup survey of 875 Catholic adults commissioned by the authors and a 2003 University of Notre Dame study of 1,115 Catholics.

The researchers found that young Catholics, like the older faithful, strongly identify as Catholic and hold on to core teachings of the faith, such as the responsibility to help the poor and belief in Jesus' resurrection and the importance of the sacraments. Seventy-nine percent of young adult Catholics in the Notre Dame study said the church is very important to them, and two-thirds said they would never leave the church.

Yet the authors also predict a drift downward in young Catholics' commitment. General Social Survey data show that the percentage of young Catholics attending Mass weekly or more dropped from 37 percent in the early 1970s to 19 percent in 2002, Hoge said. In the Notre Dame study, 70 percent of Catholics ages 18 to 39 (compared to 49 percent of respondents 63 and older) said Catholics must do what they think is right even if it disagrees with church teachings.

To reach younger generations, the Catholic church will have to adapt not its core doctrine but its approach, the authors of American Catholics Today say. Among their suggestions: Offer young people opportunities to serve in the church, serve the needy and cultivate small faith communities throughout dioceses.

"My generation truly wants to be part of the church," said Alexander Nixon, 16, a member of St. Ambrose. "They want to be involved."

Greg Moser, who oversees youth and young adult ministries for the Cleveland Catholic diocese, said the church must listen to young Catholics "because they believe it's their church, and frankly it is."

He advises parishes to seek out the gifts of young Catholics and include them with other age groups in the liturgy. "When people get recognized and affirmed for what they're good at doing, they won't move," Moser said.

By DAVID BRIGGS

Religion News Service

Brunswick, Ohio

[David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.]
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Title Annotation:NATION
Author:Briggs, David
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 7, 2008
Words:840
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