My day job as parish secretary brings me into contact with numerous people, often seeking sacraments; one of the most frequent being infant baptism. A young mom or dad reaches out, sometimes tentatively, to inquire about how to proceed. More often than not, they are not regular church-goers, sometimes they were married at the parish, or simply grew up there. It is a joy to encounter them and help them in whatever way I can. If they follow through, it becomes my job to collect information so that the great welcome of the new child can begin.
That’s when it might get sticky, when I get to godparent(s) requirements. According to Canon Law (Can. 874 §1.3) godparents, or sponsors must: be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on; read more here.) This is when I am like to hear that the godparent(s) are “Catholic, but they don’t actually go to a church!”
This scenario is one of many that ran through my head as I read “The Nones are Alright, A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between,” by Kaya Oakes, (209 pp., Orbis Books, $22.00) So many elements of this book hit upon the very thing I encounter on a regular basis. In fact, I may have to print these sentences from page 97, and post them next to my desk… “They are still Catholic, but in many ways they are Catholic Nones. They wear their Catholicism loosely, or, in some cases, it follows them through life like a ghost.”
Reading this book reminded me of a “None” I once knew – me. Like author Oakes, I too once occupied “none-space,” although in very dissimilar ways. We both, however differently, had the experience of seeking, and returning to the church.
The book follows the trail of observations and experiences as she investigates the “Nones.” For example, as an instructor at the University of California Berkley, Oakes found a clear vantage point into the experiences of numerous nones. Astutely observing what younger generations – and others – are up to in the world of faith journeys, she transforms what she explores into a deeply interesting and thought provoking book. This work goes beyond the Catholics, and into the world of a generation not oriented towards particular faiths and denominations.
This volume reads easily and quickly. I found myself turning pages and wondering what was coming, identifying very much with some of the people, and not so much with others. With each chapter I read about people who were familiar and many who were not. In a little over 200 plus pages, much ground is comprehensively covered. To my way of seeing, all the stories were all intriguing. Due to the use of conversational and accessible language, Oakes creates a book is not just a writer’s observations, but also an independent study into a very important phenomenon of our time.
So yes, the book is easy to read and personal – yes. However, as you read, you will also find many diverse footnotes and sources. This adds a nice heft and gravitas that I appreciated. Research and preparation matters, and in this case was well done.
There are some of the “nones” who are fine where they are, others still have that longing for the church of their heart, whether or not that church ever really existed. For any of us who have wandered out of the pasture, the landscapes may appear as familiar territory. Familiar but not to be ignored, because you may think you know where the story is going. And if you think that connecting with the “Nones” is about one church being more more modern, more open and affirming, or more welcoming than another, prepare to be surprised.
This book should be required reading for anyone who works in any ministry of welcome, catechesis, or initiation. Others who would benefit from it would be those who cannot understand why there “Nones” in the first place. That might include pastors, clerics, or bishops of any denomination, or those who who consider themselves evangelizers. If you ask the question about who are these seekers and why are they not in our/your flock? Another audience would be church book groups, I think this would be a great idea for those who gather to read and discuss in an ecclesial setting.
But please – do not read it as a way to capture those you perceive to be the lost sheep, but instead as invitation to understand what led them out of the fold – if they were ever in it – in the first place. A journey through this $22.00 volume could be a better investment than a purchase of the next “bring them back to church” program pitched to you by a consultant. That program may have value, but perhaps reading “Nones” first, might be a more fruitful start.
How does the story end? This is a story of seeking, does it ever end? All I can say is this – read the book.