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The Old Normal

Churches that stayed open during the pandemic are the ones thriving.

A family with kids prays during St. Patrick's Cathedral
(Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Young adults are done with religion. Some aspects of ritual remain: a venti macchiato is a sort of morning communion, a notification from BeReal an unexpected adhan, and a soul-searching Netflix miniseries with a glass of Chardonnay a kind of examination of conscience. But brick and mortar, church and steeple, are a thing of the past. 

A recent study published by the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Chicago confirms that the perception of adolescent apathy can be backed up by the data. Among the demographic categories of age, religion, and education, the group that saw the most dramatic decline in religious attendance since Covid was that of 18- to 29-year-olds: After Covid, 43 percent of that group said that they never go to church, compared to 30 percent before. “No group of Americans has undergone more significant change in religious attendance than young adults,” the authors conclude.

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Overall, the survey found that the share of Americans who never go to church increased from 25 percent to 33 percent. The authors predict that the “post-pandemic religious decline may portend increasing religious polarization, with more Americans either very religiously active or completely inactive.”

Polarization is one word for it. Fr. Daniel Gee, pastor of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Front Royal, Virginia, says that the young adult group at his parish is bigger than ever. “We’re trying to open a new parish out here because our parish is so large.” 

Before arriving at St. John’s, Fr. Gee was the pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia. For the first month and a half of Covid, he kept the church doors open from six in the morning until nine at night and added times for confession and adoration: “It was completely, 100 percent open for everybody. We encouraged people to come by and pray in the church.” After his bishop permitted the priests of the diocese to start indoor Masses, Fr. Gee doubled the number of Mass times for his congregation. He casually told me, “We had a 5, 6, and 7 on Saturday, and then a 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1 on Sunday.”

The growing presence of young people at both of his churches was a point of fascination for him, one that he ultimately ascribes to liturgical and doctrinal orthodoxy and a strong community. “They see that there’s other people their age that are also embracing the faith very much… Community is important.” Fr. Gee’s desire to increase liturgical offerings was not strictly motivated by a long-term strategic goal of convincing his congregants that his church was there for them—though it certainly was. He saw it as a matter of conscience. “How can I not do everything I can to provide a space for everyone to come and worship? It’s just that simple.”

Fr. John Whiteford, pastor of St. Jonah Orthodox Church in Spring, Texas, experienced a similar growth at his parish. The church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), got “back to normal relatively quickly.” After five Sundays of Divine Liturgy with a ten person maximum, then a few weeks of functioning at half capacity, St. Jonah’s welcomed all their congregants back to church. Fr. Whiteford said that about 140 congregants come to his church every Sunday, “but the fire marshal says we’re not supposed to have more than 145 people. So we really are running out of space.” Of those 140, about 70 to 80 stay for a meal after the Sunday liturgy. 

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Fr. Whiteford also finds “a lot of young people” coming to his services. The pastor said that he had a “big influx of catechumens” in 2021 and baptized about twenty people during Lent this past year. He said that he’s “never had numbers like that before.” During Covid, the priest said that he thought about “Christians in the past that never showed fear in the face of such things.” 

That fear, according to Fr. John Vidal, is what kept people away from church during a time of need. Fr. Vidal, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, is pastor of St. Luke’s at Ignatius Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. He thinks that the lockdowns and response from the Church “scared a big segment of the population into inactivity,” namely, the elderly. The lesson from this, according to a pleasant but serious Fr. Vidal, is to “never, ever, ever, ever, ever cancel Mass again and suggest that the Eucharist is not absolutely central to everything we do.”

The lesson from this, according to a pleasant but serious Fr. Vidal, is to “never, ever, ever, ever, ever cancel Mass again and suggest that the Eucharist is not absolutely central to everything we do.”

The lessons described by these clerics are far from the nebulous “new normal” anticipated by some during Covid. The challenges that they accepted were the same ones that existed before that strange time: to give people a place to pray, eat, give, and receive. The decline of youth participation in religious practice should come as no surprise when so many saw their shepherds run with the sheep. But some are returning, or coming for the first time, to old herdsmen who kept their feet on the ground.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated that St. Jonah's parish halted liturgies for five Sundays, instead of implementing a ten person maximum. We regret the error.