Can a church that measures time by 40 days of Lent, 50 days of Easter and four Sundays of Advent appeal to a generation that has little regard for tradition and institutions? Will religion, as the visible institution of faith, be able to affect the trend or will the trend affect the church?
These questions are provoked by a lengthy article in a recent Time magazine profiling "the millennials" — the latest generation to capture the interest of sociologists and marketers.
Every generation has been subjected to criticism or praise: the "greatest generation" for emerging from the Great Depression and fighting World War II; the "baby boomers" for their sense of entitlement.
The latest to be examined, the millennials, were born from 1980 to 2000. At 80 million, they are the largest age group in American history. Their profile is unflattering: narcissistic, lack of empathy, addiction to technology and a false sense of self-importance.
Many have enhanced expectations for participation, self-realization and control over their lives.
"All of the self-esteem leads them to be disappointed when the world refuses to affirm how great they know they are," the Time article noted.
The article points out scores for tests of empathy fell sharply since 2000.
"Not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding the others’ points of view," the article said.
Pretty tough stuff. The young of each generation have raised concerns — from long-haired, hip swaying rock ‘n’ roll singers, to hippies and flower children to Generation X. Most turned out well, society survived, the nation prospered and there’s no reason to think this won’t be the case now.
Still, it is interesting in terms of how the church will deal with this tsunami of 80 million. One-third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated but say they believe in God. They don’t identify with institutions.
There is, however, room for optimism.
Previous popes have spoken and written repeatedly about materialism and consumerism.
But we will be hearing more and more from Pope Francis who has been speaking in more pastoral than pedantic language.
"Today — and it pains me to say this — a homeless person dying in the cold doesn’t make the news" nor do the millions of children around the globe who go to bed hungry each night, he said.
"We have begun this culture of disposal," he said, where "human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away."
As any society, the Catholic Church has laws. Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said in an interview that while the fundamentals of faith do not change, church laws need to be adapted to the changing situations in which its members try to live out their faith.
Careerism and a drive to seek power in the church are sins as old as the church itself, Pope Francis said in a homily.
"The struggle for power in the church isn’t something recent," Pope Francis said in his homily at the Mass May 21.Such struggles "should not exist," because Jesus’ whole life and death teach his followers that greatness is measured by humility and service, said the pope.
The millennials have unmet expectations of worldly happiness. A pope who "tells it like it is," recognizing institutional sclerosis and ending unnecessary rules, may become attractive. Those who agree will not be disappointed by placing their expectation for eternal happiness with God. The church can be a means, not an impediment, for doing this.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.