When I was a kid, just beginning to learn about the Catholic faith, I thought making the sign of the cross before prayer was how you "dialed God's phone number." The statue in the image above, an angel with a cell phone to her ear, is from St. John's Cathedral in the Netherlands and is quite a literal translation of the idea of "calling God."
These days many are concerned that young adult Catholics have "lost" God's phone number or are just no longer interested in talking. It is the case that the most common time for someone raised in the faith to leave it, is in the teens and early 20s. At the same time it is also the case that Catholicism keeps more of its young faithful in the United States than any major Protestant denomination. The rise of the Nones—those without a religious affiliation—is almost a mirror image of the decline in young adult Americans affiliating with some other Christian denomination (source: General Social Survey). As the figure below shows, in 1972, 58% of those age 18 to 35 in the United States self-identified their religion with a Christian faith other than Catholicism (mostly Protestant denominations). In 2010, this had fallen 16 percentage points to 42%. During this same period the percentage of people in this age group lacking a religious affiliation rose from 9% to 26% (+17 percentage points).
Catholic affiliation among U.S. young adults has remained much more stable dropping 3 percentage points from 29% in 1972 to 26% in 2010 (this difference is within margin of error). The percentage of young adults affiliating with some other non-Christian religion has also remained stable.
Although the affiliation numbers are reassuring the estimates for the Mass attendance of young adults is far less positive. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 35 attend less frequently than older and younger Catholics (who are brought to church by their parents). Currently only about 16% of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 35 attend Mass every week. By comparison 37% of Catholic young adults attended every week in 1972 (a decline of 21 percentage points).
As the percentage of weekly Mass attenders has grown smaller, the share of Catholic young adults saying they attend Mass less than weekly but at least once a month has increased from 19% in 1972 to 32% in 2010 (an increase of 13 percentage points). Those saying they attend only a few times a year, less than annually, or never have remained more stable over time. If there is any silver lining in these data it is the fact that many young adults have not fallen completely away from their faith and still have some consistent connection to parish life.
The difference in the data between affiliation/identity and the practice of the faith is still remarkable. Of course so much of the Catholic faith is in action; in doing things rather than just believing them. Going to Mass and celebrating the Eucharist are essential. Is there any evidence that young adult Catholics are still calling God in some other way?
The figure below shows changes in frequency of prayer among young adult Catholics. Consistently about four in ten have reported daily prayer during the last three decades in which this question has been asked in the GSS. Also solidly consistent is the number indicating prayer at least once a week. Most young adults Catholics, about three in four in all, are having at least one conversation with God every week. They just aren't doing it in a brick and mortar parish. It is as if more recent cohorts of young adults have come to think of the parish as the "land line" connection to God—one they don't need as much or anymore given their personal connection to God through individual prayer.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the 21st century Catholic parish is to make the case for community and celebration within its walls for young adults who more often shun real world gatherings and tangible memberships for virtual content and connections (and they apparently are not doing much related to their faith online either 1, 2).
So it's not that young adult Catholics have hung up the phone and ended the conversation. The affiliation and prayer data are quite reassuring. Even the Mass attendance data shows that nearly half are in a parish at least once a month. The bigger questions are about how the Church can convince young adults to be there more often and how it can make the case to them to take their more regular personal prayer connection to God and share this with others as a parish community.