Church and new breed of teen embrace at Toronto gathering

At World Youth Day, `millennials' flock to pope as font of good, tradition

July 28, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

TORONTO - Melissa Bands, a bubbly Parkville teen-ager with a blond ponytail, spent part of her summer vacation helping out at a day camp for inner-city children.

During spring break, she went south - not to the beach bacchanalia of Florida, but on a mission trip to El Salvador. And last September, she shepherded five vanloads of clothing she collected from parishioners at St. Ursula Roman Catholic Church to a homeless men's shelter.

"My parish is full of young people who do things like this all the time," said Bands, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. "I don't think I'm very rare."

Bands has come to this city on the banks of Lake Ontario for World Youth Day, joining hundreds of thousands of other young Catholics, many of whom share her passion for social justice and community service.

The weeklong celebration culminates today with a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, who at 82 is clearly ailing but is energized in the presence of young people.

The teen-agers gathered in Toronto are members of what demographers call the "millennials," and they are defying cynics who expect them to be another generation of slackers.

This group, which includes those born since 1982, has an optimistic, can-do attitude. Its members volunteer in their communities, value the group above the individual, and are drawn to traditions of ages past.

"As a group, Millennials are unlike any other youth generation in living memory," wrote Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book, Millennials Rising, one of the first works to profile this latest cohort.

"They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse," they wrote. "More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct."

Howe and Strauss point to federal statistics that show steep declines in teen homicide, violent crime, abortion and teen pregnancy. A survey by religious pollster George Barna found that 9 of 10 teens describe themselves as happy, responsible, self-reliant and optimistic about their future.

Other surveys show that an overwhelming majority of teens say they prefer group activities - whether it's community service or church, or the movement toward dress codes and uniforms in school.

Youth ministers who work with millennials report many of the same trends.

"I think this group doesn't believe there's anything they can't solve," said D. Scott Miller of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. "They look at the twin towers falling down or the [clergy sexual abuse] scandals of the church and don't perceive them as insurmountable problems."

Clearly, such generalizations can't describe a generation in its entirety. And researchers warn that it's risky to profile a group that is so young, its members still forming their beliefs and values.

But even at this early stage, many who study such trends say today's generation of teen-agers exudes a spirit of optimism and activism. If that is true about millennials as a group, it is an even more apt description of those who traveled here for World Youth Day, who are more likely to be involved in their churches and youth groups.

Many here say they are horrified and embarrassed by the clergy sex abuse scandal that has shaken American Catholicism. But for millennials like Dana Perzynski, 17, a freshman at the University of Maryland, it is no reason to abandon faith, as she has heard of some adults doing.

"It is a big deal, but I think they're taking it to extremes," she said.

For Cindi Howard, 21, a Harford Community College student, there is no conceivable alternative. "I can't imagine not being Catholic," she said. "This is my life. To leave the church would be like not breathing. It keeps me safe. It keeps me grounded."

Patrick Sprankle, a youth minister at St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, said he is "finding young people rising to the occasion and saying, `We're the church. Whereas mistakes were made and awful things happened, we are still the church and God is still important.'"

"I heard somebody say the other day that we're the young church of today, not the church of the future," said Bands, the girl from Parkville. "We know we can do things now. We don't have to wait till we're older."

Not that young Catholics accept everything the church teaches without question.

Marc Parisi, an 18-year-old sophomore at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, admits that he struggles with the church's absolute ban on abortion.

"There are things I don't understand and a lot that I'm praying about," he said. "But the church is a lot older than I am."

One thing that appears to be attracting young people to the church is its centuries of tradition and ritual.

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