Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


In Season: Millennials and Lent

Millennial Catholics (born after 1981) have a bit of a mixed reputation. On one hand some say they are more inclined to be orthodox and traditional. On the other hand some ponder whether this is a lost generation. The reality is much more complex and most often somewhere in between these notions.

It is the case that Millennial Catholics are less likely to attend Mass frequently and receive sacraments than their parents and grandparents. Their attitudes are not always consistent with Church teachings. Yet as Lent begins next week, Millennials will in some ways be among the most active Catholics this season.

A 2008 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) includes a series of questions on Lenten devotions and practices. We were surprised to find that this is one area of the faith where there is little if any generational variation. Almost any other question you ask of Catholics does include significant differences. Lent is different.

More than one in four Millennials (27%) will receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, abstain from meat on Fridays, abstain from something else (in addition to meat on Fridays), and make extra efforts to help the needy or improve themselves. Fewer Catholics in all other generations will do all four of these things (see the green bars in the figure below). 


This differences above may be linked to the messages that young Catholics have received in recent years about Lent as they begin to develop the practices and habits they will likely hold throughout life. For example, many young Catholics now participate in service projects to help the poor in the United States and elsewhere during Lent and/or Spring Break in both high school and college. In some Catholic schools this has become a requirement.

As for other Lenten devotions and practices my hunch is that this is simply a period where Catholic identity is strongly reinforced. Next Wednesday if you are Catholic and there are no ashes on your forehead what are you saying to the local Catholic community or your family? Few if any one in the community may notice if you miss Mass but they will easily notice if you have not been to Ash Wednesday services next week.  

Also, Lent provides the opportunity for people to share their activities with others. Just the simple discussion of what one is giving up and the challenge that this creates provides something interesting to consider and talk about (perhaps even in a tweet). Not to mention Lent literally changes the menu. Is there any other time of the year McDonald's puts a poster of a Double Filet-o-fish in the window or Taco Bell starts making tacos with shrimp for a few weeks? As every professor knows the number one draw for any student activity is food. When there is a culinary element it automatically becomes more interesting.

There may be something of an effect from the Lenten messages provided by leadership as well. The image below is a Wordle created with the messages for Lent from John Paul II and Benedict XVI during the last decade (2002-2011). Wordle is a simple Linguistic tool that counts the frequency of use of words in text. It displays the most frequently used words as largest in size and places these randomly in a portrait. It’s part art and part context analysis.

Above one can see many of the words one would think to be often used (e.g., God, Jesus, Christ, life, love, and Lent). Yet also somewhat prominent are: justice, almsgiving, fasting, community, poor, poverty, and charity. I think Millennials have heard the message—perhaps even more than their parents and grandparents. Not only have they heard it but are a bit more likely than these older Catholics to fully live this out during Lent.

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