Church, Meet the Force
Catholic author Walker Percy wrote an acclaimed novel in 1961 about a man who seeks and finds spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized culture. His book, The Moviegoer, was aptly titled to suggest the cultural shift from churchgoers to moviegoers. Yet even Percy himself may not have imagined a religious sect based on a cult movie a half-century later.
About 64,000 Australians reported in the 2011 census that they were Jedi, beating the number for Seventh-day Adventists. Inspired by the Star Wars films, Jediism combines aspects of various faiths, including Catholicism, Taoism, and Buddhism. American Jedi, a 2017 film, examines the fanatics who have become practitioners of their devotion. A disciple states: “I believe Jediism is very much a religion, simply because it’s inspired by ancient religious practices, and it definitely takes the place of religion in the lives of Jedi.”
We may not know people who profess their faith in the principles depicted in a celluloid galaxy, but we’re likely familiar with friends, family members, or coworkers who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Others select elements a la carte from organized religions and live by their combined principles.
According to the Pew Research Center, fifty-one million people in the U.S. identified themselves as Catholics in 2014 (three million fewer than in 2007), while fifty-six million people had no religious affiliation in 2014 (nineteen million more than in 2007). These statistics have profound implications on people in the pews and in the sanctuaries of institutional churches.
In 1996, a study in CARA Report—a newsletter of research about American Catholics and the U.S. Church—reported that the generation of the 1970s and ’80s tended to “view their faith largely in individualistic terms, downplaying the need for mediation of the Church in their relationship with God.” The study found that many young people looked to the Church to accompany them on their own personal “faith journeys,” but it wasn’t described as “an essential component of their faith.”
While this outlook is still predominant today, even among the millennials (those born after 1980), there’s also an identifiable group of young people who embrace religious institutions and ritual practices. For example, for some young priests “the old Mass of their grandparents is hip and exotic,” according to a 2017 Time article on the next generation of Catholic clerics. Similar to the churchgoing generation of the 1930s and ’40s, this group tends to identify their overall commitment to the Church as a mediating force in relating to God. They’re also generally conservative on moral issues, more politically independent, and mission-driven.
Pope Francis recently encouraged a group of young seminarians “to be less rigid, to avoid narcissism and to discern ‘shades of gray.’” (For those who shifted from churchgoing to moviegoing, the pope is referring to ambiguity, not the Fifty Shades of Grey film series.) Moreover, this pastoral pope is reaching out to young people by convening a worldwide synod in Rome in October to discuss the faith and vocations of youth. May the Force be with him. And with his spirit.
Fr. Byron Miller, CSsR