20-Something Catholics Keep the Faith

In Philadelphia, young believers unite through roots of their religion.

The kids threw a party at the convent. But first, about 50 other 20-something Philly Catholics refurbished South Philly’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church, says Brittany Gross, 24. They organized the project themselves. Gross went to Nazareth Academy, later graduated from Temple and now works a sales job in the city. She lives at home with her parents. She doesn’t attend mass weekly, but says Nazareth instilled in her an appreciation for community service. “Catholics, especially our generation, get a bad rap,” she says. “We’re normal. We went to big schools, we had our fun, but we still want to give back.”

Ninety-four percent of Catholic high school graduates attend college, according to the latest city statistics. They’re young, educated and want to make a difference. Like Gross, many are politically undecided. But post-graduation, they return home to a church entrenched in a political war.

Last week, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman, told the Washington Post that the church would apply a “full-court press” against the “threats to religious freedoms in our day.” (Two points for the March Madness wordplay.)

Geesh, it’s a rough time to be a young Catholic in Philly: pedophilia, birth control, school closings, not to mention all the recent language tweaks at mass. And like most typical 20-somethings, we believe our life experiences to be a bit—OK, a lot—more unique than our elders. So dude, the Catholic Church might’ve been pretty bad before, but it’s never been this bad.

Not true, says University of Pennsylvania’s Sarah Barringer Gordon, Ph.D. Remember the ‘60s. The Vatican translated mass to other languages—instead of only Latin. Catholic schools closed as the number of nuns decreased. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled women had a constitutional right to contraception pills. Two years later, the Court ruled it unconstitutional to ban interracial marriage.

Gordon says American Catholics now wrestle with similar issues—just as they did when they outlawed polygamy, discrimination and illegal drug use.

“The question is whether birth control should be one of those laws,” she says. “But this debate about contraception strikes me as testing the waters for the elephant in the room—same-sex marriage.”

For those praying to return to civility in American discourse, there’s at least two years until you reach that Promised Land. In other words: God help us. You’d think that all this sex-ed from a bunch of old priests who, well, haven’t gotten any, would be enough to turn off 20-somethings from their faith. In Philadelphia, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the recent school closings have brought them closer together. If they don’t plan the class reunion party, no one else will.

“We’re just trying to make a difference in the community by getting off the couch on Saturday morning—that’s what we were taught, that’s what we’re doing,” Gross says. “A lot of politicians are all talk. They’re not helping the people. They’re worrying about themselves.”

Self-righteousness? Some of these politicos and priests are behaving like a bunch of typical 20-somethings. In contrast, in a South Philly convent, Gross and her friends finally found something to celebrate. And if there’s no space in grandpa’s ol’ party—why not host your own? Sister Mary Ann, keep out.