At a clergy meeting I attended recently (nearly all the priests about my age) there was some concern expressed about the younger generation of seminarians. It seemed, some felt, that they were more conservative, in theology, dress and liturgy than ever our generation had been.
But one priest pointed out, wisely, I thought, that each generation reacted against the previous one, to some extent. He asked us to remember that, as curates, we had enjoyed shocking the older parish priests, by our wholesale embrace of Vatican II. We could hardly be surprised if the next generation enjoyed needling us a bit.
I’ve tried to reflect on the monthly meeting I have with a group of young Catholics involved in some particular pastoral work. They are bright, deeply committed, and devout. They would prefer me to celebrate the Extraordinary Form, and at the moment I am only confident enough to do the Ordinary Form in latin. Given my Anglican background, and the fact that Vatican II was in the full flood of implementation just as I started training, it is hardly surprising that I don’t feel particularly at ease with the old Mass. But I think I understand where they are coming from.
My generation grew up in a culture which was still largely Christian in its attitudes and behaviour. In the state Grammar School I attended there were in my own year, and the years above and below, young men who were going to train for the priesthood. Most of my friends would be married in church, and many of them went to Mass or a service at Christmas and Easter. Divorce was unusual among our parents, abortion unknown, and suicide was at worst a crime, at best a failure by family and friends.
For the generation now entering their 20’s, to hold Catholic beliefs about suicide, abortion, marriage, human sexuality and gender roles render any young Catholic open to curiosity, ridicule and even hostility. The Church of the 1960’s was confident of its need to be open to a changing society: it expected a generous response to its many changes and reforms from the society around it. We were disappointed.
Many young Catholics are now pessimistic about the state of 21st century European culture, and therefore seek from their faith a confident proclamation of salvation from sin through God’s grace. They need peer and group support; they want a clear Catholic identity; in liturgy and devotion they look for something which lifts them above the mundane and the everyday. Are they so different from the young people we now venerate as saints and martyrs at the time of the Reformation, and in the great missionary evangelisation of the nineteenth century? It should not surprise us to learn that the most dramatic renewal and growth among young people is happening with those who are part of the Charismatic Movement, and those who gather around the Extraordinary Form of Mass. They may seem polls apart – but they are not.