This post originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.
As the choir rehearses before St. Monica’s Sunday evening Mass, two blond women in skinny jeans slide into a pew in the rear of the church and chat quietly. A few pews back a woman wearing a mid-thigh length dress and a long sweater genuflects before beginning to pray. Before long, the church is filled with attractive people under 40.
St. Monica Catholic Community is a destination parish for young adults in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with a reputation for being the place where young, attractive Catholics go to seek somebody special—and I don’t mean Jesus.
The phenomenon isn’t just a local one; the New York Post recently declared Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral as that city’s “sexiest congregation,” and it’s even garnered an entry in Urban Dictionary as “ass mass” (defined as “the place to go to hook up for both spiritual and booty worship”).
Where they “get fed”
St. Monica, which is located in the cosmopolitan beach city of Santa Monica, is diverse by national standards, though the 5:30 p.m. service is filled mostly with young, white professionals, who arrive smartly dressed whether mass is followed by a workout or a night on the town.
Dating through a religious community isn’t new or unique to Catholicism, of course. JDate turns twenty next year, and evangelicals (for whom “young adult” is often code for “single”) have been known to seek out Bible studies with “cute” guys and girls.
But in a time of declining demographics, and an upswing in online dating, the popularity of such parishes appears almost as an act of defiance. According to the Pew Research Center, the Catholic share of the population has been dropping steadily and getting older. To make matters worse, 41 percent of Catholics ages 18-30 could imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday. While 10 percent of millennials still consider themselves to be culturally Catholic, many already have left—most often to join the ranks of “nones.”
Millennials’ ambivalence challenges young adult ministries to evolve, says Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The idea of driving across town to a destination parish like St. Monica instead of joining a neighborhood parish is a “no brainer” to them. “People will go where they are fed.”
Even the idea that young adults need to be “fed” is new by Catholic standards, emerging only in the late 1960s. Father John Cusick, who established the first archdiocesan young adult ministry in Chicago in 1977, also had a hand in the development of Theology on Tap in the early 80s. Held in a bar, this lecture series was designed to attract young people who weren’t necessarily showing up to church on Sunday morning. Dioceses around the country now have similar programs.
Delis Alejandro, pastoral associate at St. Monica, credits Cusick for many ideas that helped her build the Young Ministering Adults program (YMA) in the early 1980s, including taking flyers to bars in those pre-Facebook days. Much of what attracted young adults to St. Monica then remains attractive today. Sunday evening Mass works with young people’s schedules and Alejandro has been intentional about making young adults—and women—visible as greeters, choir members and Eucharistic ministers. The homilies speak to them and ask something of them. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved, from service activities to social events. YMA now has 700 active people on its email list.
Young adult groups can give the sense that the church wants to marry people off so they will have Catholic babies, but Jarzembowski says this is a misperception. He notes that the Catholic Church defines the young adult years—ages 19 to 39—as a time of transition, not only to marriage but also to school, first jobs, new cities and so on.
Indeed, marriage has changed dramatically in recent decades. In 1960, the average age for marriage was 20 for women and 23 for men. Today, it’s 27 and 29 respectively. Nearly one-third of adults have never married, though more than half say they want to get married someday, and only 13 percent say they don’t want to marry.
Still, the young adult Catholics at St. Monica see meeting potential partners as a byproduct rather than the goal of young adult ministry. At a post-Mass dinner for newcomers to the YMA, several of the 26 women and 14 men—both new and old members—say they’re seeking friendship and community.
Most newcomers introduce themselves as transplants from around the country. A young man, visiting from Michigan, is checking out the church community to see if Santa Monica might be a good place to move.
A group leader emphasizes that through YMA you can go out to bars and talk about God, but in casual conversation others downplay religion, stressing that members are “normal” and not “Bible-thumping” Catholics.
Statements like these reflect the journeys many have taken. Afterward, three women tell me they were raised Catholic but hadn’t been involved in the church for some time, while another young man tells me he’s interested in spirituality but claims no religion.
They get what Catholic guilt is
These days, Alejandro can’t assume that young adults are steeped in Catholic culture. Many don’t know or agree with church teaching, she says, and quite a few partner with non-Catholics.
It’s the church’s open-mindedness that appeals to Jessica Davis, a self-described “thinking Catholic” with a non-Catholic boyfriend. A note in the bulletin about St. Monica’s Gay Lesbian Outreach convinced Davis, who wanted “to make a community for myself,” that the church could be a welcoming, non-judgmental place for her, too. “When you’re not excluding anybody, it’s a safe place to be.”
Likewise, the church can be a safe place to meet a significant other. “In the back of a lot people’s heads, they know this [congregation] has a group of people who could potentially be great matches,” says Jason Semko, a long-time YMA member. “There are a lot of high-quality people here, and the great thing is that you can get to know them as friends first.”
Religion serves as a filtering mechanism for many singles. About half of never-married adults say it’s important to them to find a partner with shared religious and moral beliefs. Most secular dating sites allow you to list yourself and search others by religion, but there are dating services that cater specifically to Christians, Jews, or Muslims.
And, of course, there are many shades of “Catholic.”
St. Monica parishioner Molly Harrington, who isn’t involved in YMA’s dating scene, signed up for CatholicMatch.com during Lent one year. The site asks users whether they accept the church’s teachings on seven issues, from the Eucharist and Immaculate Conception to contraception and premarital sex. She was disappointed to find that many people only accept two or three of the seven teachings. (Catholic Match doesn’t release these statistics.)
“How does that make it any different than not being Catholic?” asks Harrington. “Why would you even go on a Catholic dating site if you really didn’t believe in most of what is taught, except for maybe it’s a cultural thing?”
The “cultural thing,” though, is important to a lot of people.
“Sarah,” who asked not to be identified, has dated atheists but prefers Catholics. “When you look at it objectively, it’s kind of ridiculous to believe in God,” she says. “For somebody who has never had that personal belief system, who wasn’t raised that way, or who didn’t experience that…it can be confusing.”
Her current boyfriend, a Catholic whom she met through a friend, “gets it.” To help her fall asleep one night, for instance, she took out a rosary to pray. “I left my rosary on his side table, and he knew exactly what it was,” she says. “It’s really nice to be with somebody who gets that cultural basis.”
Plus, she adds, “they get what Catholic guilt is.”
Shared faith doesn’t guarantee a perfect match, of course. Sarah previously dated someone she met through St. Monica’s YMA. They remain friends, but as she prefers not to see him at Mass, Sarah now attends one of St. Monica’s morning Masses, whose more somber style turns out to be a better fit anyway.
“Even if you’re completely over it and with somebody else, it’s not conducive to quiet prayer,” Sarah says.
In this sense, dating through church might be riskier for the more devout. Of course, as Cynthia Kron, who runs the L.A.-based singles ministry Catholics Click, points out: this is the very group that cares most about dating fellow Catholics.
One woman told her she wouldn’t date at her church, “because if we broke up, I’d want custody of this Mass.” Another told her he’d switch parishes once he found a girlfriend.
After converting to Catholicism six years ago, Kron herself spent time “church hopping” with the hope of finding both community and meeting Mr. Right. “It was sort of this merry-go-round,” she says. “It’s exhausting, and then you don’t have a home base for your faith.”
“I know that there are people who are strategic. They’re serious about their faith, but they’re going for places where there are [larger] numbers,” Kron says.
Not just about brides and grooms
Dating drama can make YMA seem like high school, one young woman tells me over a beer at a Sunday night trivia event (indeed, many YMA members suspect that some only show up the social events for the dating pool).
But the group at the bar has come directly from Mass. As they talk, older members make sure that the half-dozen newcomers are included. Nobody drinks excessively or pairs off, despite some flirting.
Millennials are looking for deep connections, not a clique, Jarzembowski says. “Even if the sexiest congregation has a social element, that congregation also needs to be cautious not to be closed on itself.”
It used to be assumed that young Catholics come back to the church when they get married or have children. That can’t be assumed anymore, especially as more Catholics marry non-Catholics or don’t marry at all. But on the flipside, says Jarzembowski, if young adult ministry is all about meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right, the church runs the risk of losing couples as soon as they pair off.
Four months into their marriage, Mike Steinberger and his wife are still involved in the group because they’ve benefit from it not only as a couple, but as individuals.
Like many others, Steinberger had been away from the church and came to St. Monica looking for a “community that nurtured my faith.” He had been involved for a few years when he and his now-wife became friends while running Tuesday Night Vespers, which he describes as a “mini-retreat” to distinguish it from traditional Vespers.
“Am I shocked that throwing myself in with a group of like-minded people, I found somebody I fell in love with? No, that’s not surprising.”
At Mass the Steinbergers are two pews back, and another couple sits directly in front of me. The other young adults surrounding me seemed to be alone.
The second reading includes the passage, “Love is patient; love is kind…” It’s one Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson hears often at the many marriages he celebrates at St. Monica each year, he says in his homily.
But Paul the Apostle “wasn’t writing to brides and grooms,” he says. “He was writing to the community of Corinth who was fighting like cats and dogs. That’s a much stronger message…It’s for all of us.”
Even if some young Catholics come to St. Monica primarily for the dating pool it doesn’t bother Torgerson. “I don’t care why they come,” he says, “I care about how they leave.”
Megan Sweas is the editor and director of communications with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.