Young Christians in Europe ‘swimming against the tide’

21 March 2018

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Participants in World Youth Day 2016, in Cracow, Poland, were able to confess in more than 50 confessionals, in the Zone of Reconciliation at Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki

Participants in World Youth Day 2016, in Cracow, Poland, were able to confess in more than 50 confessionals, in the Zone of Reconciliation at Sanctuar...

RETURNING to a world in which Christianity was regarded as “very weird” would not be a bad thing, the author of a study that highlights the minority status of young European Christians said this week.

In 12 of the 22 counties studied, more than half of young adults (aged 16-29) said that they did not identify with any religion. The percentage who identified as “Nones” was highest in two post-Communist countries — the Czech Republic (91 per cent), and Estonia (80 per cent) — followed by Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK (70 per cent).

Yet within some of these countries, the small minorities who identified as Christian reported relatively high levels of practice. Of the seven per cent of Czech young adults who identified as Roman Catholic, 24 per cent reported weekly attendance.

“The few people who do call themselves Christians are doing it not out of some cultural family nostalgia, but for a reason,” the study’s author, Dr Stephen Bullivant, Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said on Monday.

“If you are in your twenties and still going to church every Sunday, that is not something that is normal in your peer group, and what you hopefully find is some other people who are there for a reason, swimming against the tide. . . That is when you start to see personal deepening of ministry.”

The study, Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, was carried out in collaboration with the Institut Catholique de Paris, and draws on data about young adults, aged 16-29, in 22 European countries, including Israel and Russia, collected in the European Social Survey.

In 19 countries, more than a third of respondents identified with a religion. Rates of “Nones” were lowest in Israel (one per cent), Poland (17 per cent), and Lithuania (25 per cent). The six countries where the highest proportions identified as Christian were all historically Catholic-majority countries: Poland, Lithuania, Ireland, Slovenia, Portugal, and Austria.

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“What we sometimes forget about the Communist era was that these were already very different and diverse countries, with their own histories and religious profiles,” Professor Bullivant said. “There wasn’t one ‘thing’ the Communist era interacted with . . . There were different configurations between Church and State. . . Poland was able to remain the carrier of an independent religious and national identity.”

The study suggests that religious practice varies, and that high rates of affiliation do not necessarily correspond with attendance. In only four countries do more than one in ten report attending religious services at least once a week: Poland, Israel, Portugal, and Ireland. Despite having high rates of affiliation, Lithuania, Austria, and Slovenia all ranked low in this regard.

There is also variation in practice among those who identify as Catholic. In France, just seven per cent of the 23 per cent who identify as Catholic attended weekly mass, compared with 47 per cent of the 82 per cent who identify as Catholic in Poland. Ten per cent of young people in the UK identify as Catholic, of whom 17 per cent attend weekly mass. Catholic was the largest Christian identity in the UK, at ten per cent, compared with seven per cent Anglican.

Examples of growth and vibrancy in churches did not disprove secularisation, but were a byproduct of it, Professor Bullivant said: “The few Christians who are left are going to find each other and feel more committed, precisely because they are counter-cultural, and that motivates them. . . Christianity was originally very weird, and it’s probably good for us to feel a bit weird. . . It isn’t something that we should just regard as normal stuff that you can nod along to.”

World Youth Day — attended by six million young Catholics in 2015 — and Taizé were examples of work that was under way to bring young Catholics together, across borders, he said, and had a “powerful, galvanising effect”. The decline in cultural Christianity, which was no longer passed from generation to generation, meant that “one of the critical things will be finding places where people in community take Christian discipleship seriously.”

The report was produced to inform this year’s Synod of Bishops, due to be held in Rome in October, with the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

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