We were waiting in line, shuffling slowly as a crowd—something we did often at this past week’s World Meeting of Families—when a woman asked about our research and wanted to know the thing that surprised us most about young adults and marriage trends.
She was surprised when Amber told her that contrary to the doom and gloom talk, the young adults we interviewed overwhelmingly still want to get married. They believe that marriage demands fidelity and commitment and sacrifice. Many of them—even those who do not attend church regularly—describe marriage as “sacred.” They share memes on their Facebook pages that say things like “I want my first marriage to be my only marriage.”
Yes, these same young adults also extol cohabitation. But not because they don’t believe in marriage—rather, they see living together as a way to make sure that when they do get married, they will not divorce. And although this strategy is misguided, it is also a sign of how seriously young adults take the decision to marry, how weighty it feels to them.
In other words, young adults do not delay marriage because they no longer aspire to it, but because, all too often, they are afraid of it.
They cite high divorce rates. They tell stories of the pain they felt when their own parents divorced or never married in the first place. They alternate between tears and anger when describing difficult break-ups with exes. In this context, they struggle to trust other people, and marriage itself. They worry that “marriage ruins relationships.” With few positive models, they are zealous to avoid divorce. As one single mom from a fragmented family told us, “I only want to be married once. I don’t want to get married then divorced, remarried then divorced, like my whole family has been.”
Young adults do not delay marriage because they no longer aspire to it, but because, all too often, they are afraid of it.
This is the same message that Pope Francis heard from an engaged Australian couple on Saturday night. “We have some fears about getting married,” the fiancée said. “In our country, there is a high rate of divorce and we often wonder, ‘How can we be sure that this will not happen to us?’” And in a poll conducted in real time during another session at the World Meeting of Families, audience members text-messaged their responses to a question about the biggest obstacles they faced on the path to marriage. The word “fear” emerged as the second most common response, second only to “time.” These anecdotes are hardly scientific conclusions, but they echo what researchers are hearing in interviews with young people.
Our approach to young adults must be guided by this reality. If the problem is that they are basically anxious about getting married in an age of family and economic fragmentation, those of us who care about marriage should not approach them as ideological enemies, badgering and lecturing and lamenting. An anxious age demands a different response.
In his address to Roman Catholic bishops at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Pope Francis suggested the outlines of such a response. He stated that “the family is not first and foremost a cause for concern, but rather the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation.” He told the bishops that young people grow up in a social environment wasted by a consumerism—“consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming…”—that shreds trust and produces what he describes as “the root” of so many contemporary problems that confront young people: “a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness.” He is describing alienation.
How, then, should we respond to young people, the pope asked? “Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that ‘it was all better back then,’ ‘the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?’”
“No,” he said, “I do not think this is the way.”
Moreover, he said, we would be “mistaken” to interpret young people’s posture toward marriage as “indifference” or “pure and simple selfishness.” Instead, in his reading of things, young people come of age in an era of alienation, “a culture of discouragement,” and feel paralyzed in the face of marriage. In the meantime, he said, for young people “life goes on, without really being lived to the full.” Francis is describing young people who are afraid, but very capable of achieving marriage and family life.
The right response to a social problem is to throw a feast.
To address this reality, he said, “We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.” Pastors, he said, should focus on an accompaniment that witnesses to the beauty and goodness of marriage and family life—less “talking,” more “shepherding” and “wasting” time with people. Rather than issuing more descriptions of the problems—clear denunciations that comfort the hearts of those within the tribe, but offer little for those outside—Francis wants the Church to do what he came to Philadelphia to do: invite and celebrate.
L. Gregory Jones, a theologian and author of several books on reconciliation, has suggested that the right response to a social problem is to throw a feast. Where there is alienation, the remedy is to open the streets and throw a party—which is what we found ourselves doing on the streets of Philadelphia.
At Saturday’s “Festival of Families,” we watched and waited with our two little boys, listened and laughed with thousands of others from across the globe. The joy and festivity were palpable. Nuns smiled and chatted with what seemed like everyone—after a boisterous crowd of them departed our night train home, a new friend on the train cheerfully remarked, “Apparently they don’t take a vow of silence.” Crowds high with anticipation for any sign of the Pope erupted into applause at any sign of life along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: the trashman, the firefighters, a squirrel. Smiling police officers acknowledged thanks from the crowd and acted as photographers for many. Our three-year-old ran the Parkway with his new friend, a grandson of Argentine immigrants; our one-year-old swayed to the beat of the Zimbabwean dance. The show of “unity within diversity” prompted a Hispanic member of a band on the Logan Square Stage to comment how remarkable it was that such a diverse crowd could come together in such peace.
We were the “polyhedron” that Francis extolled on the steps of Independence Hall: each people, vibrant in our own colors, together cheering the pope who had invited us all here. After a weeklong conference full of words about the family, we were here as families, partying and wasting time. To live that joy, to share that joy—that is Pope Francis’s solution for strengthening the family.