A common meme among conservotrads and traditionalists is that millenials who were raised in “traditional” parishes are keeping the proverbial faith, while young people who were raised in “Novus Ordo” parishes are leaving Catholicism for Protestantism, atheism, or who knows what else. A variation on this theme is that “traditional” liturgical churches are gaining more millenial converts, while liberal mainline churches wither and die. As a member of one of those “traditional” parishes for three years and a former convert, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on these propositions.
First, a few things should be mentioned about St F, the traditionalist parish I was once a member of. I’ve visited almost all of the Catholic churches in the City of Atlanta, and St F’s was by far the smallest, both in terms of membership and with regard to the size of the building itself. There was always a good number of people at the masses (low mass at 9, high mass at 11 on Sundays), enough to create a sustainable community, but when compared with the membership at other “Novus Ordo” churches in the archdiocese, it was pretty small; everyone in the parish could have probably fit into half of the sanctuary at a large church like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (this church has about six masses on Sunday, and they’re all pretty full; so much for the “Novus Ordo” churches aren’t attracting parishioners). In a previous life, St F was a Baptist church and the exterior reflects this. If you’ve spent any time in the South, you seen a million tiny churches that look just like it. Because the church building itself was so compact, it made it appear like there were more people that there actually were. If the same masses were being held in a “regular-sized” Catholic church, it would seem poorly attended, but in a small building, it seemed packed in comparison.
New people seldom joined St F, but people often left, as I had to in 2009. Occasionally, the defectors would leave to go deeper into the radtrad rabbit hole (there is an SSPX chapel to the north of St F), but generally it was people who’d had enough of the crazy. I would eventually learn that a couple of years before I joined St F that there had been a female “visionary” of some sort who used to sprawl out in the aisle during mass and was a supporter of the SSPV. She eventually left, but not before freaking a bunch of people out, which then caused them to leave. Then right before the Fr. B scandal blew up, there was an incident where a convert of Jewish heritage got irate when the weekly bulletin contained a pre-Vatican II era essay that he perceived to be anti-Semitic and called the Anti-Defamation League. The incident was settled, but the complainant would end up leaving and I don’t blame him (in retrospect, I should have headed for the hills myself). While there were always enough people to keep the parish going, it was comprised of the same core group who had been there since the founding of the parish, and really since the start of Catholic traditionalism in Georgia. New blood was a rare thing.
And what about those kids, who are being nourished by the holy goodness of the immortal Tridentine Mass, circa 1962? I think it is true that children being raised in traditionalist subculture are more apt to stay Catholic, not because the Tridentine Mass is objectively more “holy” or metaphysically better, but because those kids are being raised in a severely restricted Catholic bubble with little information about the outside world. Most of the kids at St F were homeschooled and only had contact with the other homeschooled children of the parish. They didn’t interact with “Novus Ordo” Catholics, and some didn’t even associate with children from families that were members of St F but held theological views that their parents didn’t approve of. Furthermore, they didn’t watch TV, have access to the Internet, or read books outside of the pious claptrap produced by EWTN, Tan Books, Baronius Press and the like. When a child is raised in such a closed religious and intellectual environment, they’re going to conform simply because they don’t know any better, not because they arrived at the independent conclusion that Catholicism is the best religion and the Tridentine Mass of 1962 is the best manifestation of said religion. For kids raised in the even more restrictive environs of the SSPX and the SSPV, it must be even worse, because the size of the bubble is so much smaller. Simply put, traditionalist kids aren’t given the tools, whether intellectual, educational, or social, to operate in a secular, pluralistic world, and that in turn discourages them from leaving their safe, traditionalist bubble.
While Catholic traditionalists like to think of themselves, with their large families and committed base of supporters, as the future of the church, nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody knew that St F existed, aside from other Catholic traditionalists who go out of their way to know where all the Latin Masses are held throughout the world. St F wasn’t a light unto the rest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It didn’t encourage greater “orthodoxy” or traditionalism among the other parishes, because the people of St F made a point of being separate from the “Novus Ordo” churches and all their works. To the rest of the world, we were just a bunch of crazy people fighting imagined battles against “modernism” and “heresy” that nobody cared about.
The future of the Catholic church and Christianity in general is in Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity, not the liturgical churches. A couple of FSSP and SSPX missions in Nigeria or Kenya is just a drop in the bucket compared to the kinds of explosive growth that the Pentecostalists and Charismatic churches are experiencing, not just in Africa, but in Asia, Latin America, and here in the United States. While it’s true that some millenials may be attracted to liturgical churches, “some” does not equal a noticeable trend, and a good portion of the ones that do convert will invariably become disillusioned and leave like I did. The same goes for Orthodoxy in the Western world, for that matter. Converts like Rod Dreher and Fredericka Matthews Green may think that Orthodoxy is the new hotness for intellectual conservative Christians, but Orthodox Christianity is even smaller than Catholic traditionalism and most Orthodox Christians are “ethnics” with no interest in crusading against gay marriage, abortion, or whatever the subject of the religious right’s two minutes of hate will be next. All of the clerical bling and incense in the world can’t hide the fact that traditionalism is just 24/7 ecclesiastical cosplay and LARPing, with politics that are about as ridiculous as anything on tumblr or livejournal.