Once dominant Catholic Church struggles to attract young followers

The Catholic Church is hopeful excitement surrounding Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. will help reverse a decades-old trend of declining religious affiliation among young adults.

“I stopped going about three years ago,” said Xavier Smith, 20, an Arizona State University student.

Smith identifies as Catholic; however, he said doesn’t practice the faith anymore.

“I went to church more so for my parents,” Smith said. “They are Catholic and wanted me to go to Mass. It stopped being about me.”

A Pew Research Center report released in May found that just 16 percent of millennials (Americans aged 18-34) identified as Catholic, while 20 percent to 23 percent of their counterparts in three previous generations claimed that religious affiliation.

Recent surveys confirmed a decline in both Mass attendance and in support for Catholic sexual ethics, especially among millennials.

“It’s not why I stopped going to church, but I do disagree with some stances,” Smith said. “I think the church should try to not cross those social boundaries.”

Surveys have shown for many years young adults in the U.S. have been far less likely than older Americans to identify with a religious group. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the already large share of religiously unaffiliated millennial adults is growing.

A high percentage of younger millennials are self-described religious “nones,” identifying as agnostics or atheists or saying their religion is nothing in particular, according to the Pew report.

“My family wasn’t religious when I was growing up, so I really wasn’t religious either,” said Lauryn Witt, 19, an ASU student.

“We would go to church every now and then, but it was never regular,” Witt said. “I would say I don’t fit in with one religion and am a religious ‘none.'”

While some millennials are leaving their childhood religion, most were raised without a religious affiliation and remain so in adulthood.

Two-thirds of millennials who were raised unaffiliated are still unaffiliated, a higher retention rate than most other major religious groups – and much higher than for older generations of “nones,” according to the Pew study.

At the same time, the survey shows, an increasing share of older millennials also identify as “nones,” with more members of that group rejecting religious labels in recent years. Overall, 35 percent of adult millennials are religiously unaffiliated. Far more millennials say they have no religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21 percent), Catholics (16 percent) or mainline Protestants (11 percent).

“I am a Christian now,” said Courtney Vescio, 23. “When my parents stopped going to the Catholic Church, so did I, even though I had my communions and stuff. Now I go to my church when I can, but it isn’t regular attendance for time reasons.”

Other young people are leaving to join churches of other Christian denominations.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the religious wars we are in in this post-9/11 world we live in,” said Sean McClure, a member of the Council of Religious Advisors at ASU. “The young adults think religion has let them down, so they don’t identify at all.”

However, those millennials who are affiliated remain faithful. More than one-third of religiously affiliated millennials say they are “strong” members of their faith, similar other generations at their age, including Gen X-ers (35-50) and baby boomers (51-69).

“I was raised Catholic, baptized as an infant and confirmed as a seventh-grader, but I had a deeper conversion experience whereby I further grasped the life of faith with deep conviction when I was a freshman at ASU,” Evan Barraza, now a junior.

The Catholic Church has been working to attract more millennials in recent years.

“The church has already been engaging millennials by the example of popes like Francis, Benedict and John Paul II, and it is John Paul II who initially declared the fervor of the Church to be within the youth,” Barraza said. “He did great work in reaching out to young people with World Youth Day, youth rallies and a commission to young people to live a life of faith and love.”

But Francis is the first pope to use social media and have his own Twitter account. Aleteia.org, a Catholic media organization created “ a movement” and the hashtag #GoodisWinning along with a special emoticon keyboard with all the emojis for the pope’s visit.

During the pope’s six-day trip to the U.S. Aleteia.org’s digital campaign will spread the message “Good Is Winning,” an effort to highlight acts of mercy, kindness, courage and dignity in everyday life. Social media channels include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, as well as contributions using Vine, Periscope and Snapchat, with top Vine and Twitter influencers being part of the mix.

The Catholic group hopes this will bolster millennial involvement with the church and spark interest among young adults who increasingly are not religious while engaging the faithful.

“The youth of the church is on fire,” Barraza said.