A new national study of Roman Catholic youth provides some tantalizing insights into the thinking of the church's most religiously involved teen-agers.
Based on a survey of adolescents in parish youth programs, it indicates that the most active young Catholics do indeed have a deep commitment to the church and its teachings.
But at the same time, the study offers little to comfort those who would hope that a new generation will reverse the 30-year-old decline in the number of priests and nuns.
The study, "New Directions in Youth Ministry," was based on a survey of 6,010 high school-age adolescents nationwide.
It was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an organization at Georgetown University, and released this month by the United States Catholic Conference.
"If you want to know what the Catholic Church is going to look like in the future, ask these folks," said Bryan Froehle, a researcher with the center, "because these are the folks who are going to be at Mass."
The center tracks major statistical trends within the church.
It reports, for example, there were 60.2 million baptized Catholics in this country in 1995, up from 52.3 million a decade earlier.
Over the same period, according to the center, the number of active priests declined, as a result of deaths, retirements and resignations, to 49,947 from 57,317, as did the number of nuns, to 92,107 from 115,386.
To obtain a profile of what Froehle called "highly committed Catholic youth," the center surveyed adolescents participating in youth ministry programs. The group was mostly white, but also included Hispanic Catholics, blacks, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
The overwhelming majority identified themselves as middle class and said they lived at home with both parents. Three-quarters did not attend a Catholic school.
Among the overall group, church leaders will find much to like. By overwhelming majorities, the adolescents surveyed described themselves as "proud to be Catholic." They said they admired Pope John Paul II, but wanted a bigger role in decision-making at the parish level.
Asked to choose matters that were most important to them, majorities of those surveyed picked these five: not using drugs, helping others, attending Mass, having a strong family life, and learning about God and the faith.
But the study also turned up some paradoxes, and at least one cause for worry.
The youths reported attending Mass more often than their friends and even their own parents. And nearly half said prayer was "very important" to them. But only one in seven said they placed such an emphasis on reading the Bible.
And, while more than 60 percent said helping others was very important to them, only a third made the same statement about performing community service.
Echoing recommendations in the study, Froehle said that both these findings were challenges for those who work with church youth. Young Catholics need to learn, he said, that their faith's social ethic requires reaching out to people as a community, not simply helping them as individuals.
But of greater concern among church leaders are the study's findings about religious vocations. While the study found that three in every 10 adolescents it surveyed had thought about becoming a priest, nun or brother, it found that parents' support for that thinking was weak.
Only a fifth of the youths in the study said their parents encouraged them to think about a religious vocation.
According to the study, support differed by gender: 26 percent of adolescent boys said their parents had encouraged them to think of becoming a priest, while only 15 percent of adolescent girls said their parents supported the idea of their becoming a nun.
"It's a very significant concern," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Catholic Conference. She said this relative lack of encouragement for religious vocations was a change in attitudes among Catholic parents.
Sister Mary Ann noted that the nation's bishops are working on a three-year project mapping new strategies for encouraging young people to enter religious life.
A major part of this, she said, is that parishes must place a greater emphasis on getting religiously inclined young people to think about becoming a priest, brother or nun.
But family encouragement remains the crucial factor. The bishops, she said, want to communicate to parents "that vocations do start in the home."
Pub Date: 8/31/96