03/03/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated May 03, 2013

Catholic Millennials Defy "Generation Me" Stigma During Papal Transition

The plight of Generation Y, or "Millennials," has been the subject of numerous psychological academic studies, mainstream media articles, and even full-length books over the past year. From findings that those born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s "are more stressed than any other currently living generation," to being labeled the "boomerang generation" because they still live at home with Mom and Dad, to needing entirely new managerial paradigms in the workplace, 18-29-year-olds in the United States have been under the microscope recently. And the fixation on this group is not without reports of a population with quickly declining religious identifications.

More specifically, "a third of adults under 30--are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling." This statistic doesn't mean, however, that those born in the last three decades are entirely without faith. With respect to Catholicism, the Pew Research Center also reports that "[t]he United States is home to about 7 percent of all Catholics in the world," and 18 percent of this population is between the ages of 18 and 29.

Already under pressure to find jobs in a struggling economy, to break free of parents' financial help, and to fit into old school, traditional workplace cultures, the papacy recently hit Generation Y Catholics with another stressor--its spiritual leader and Vicar of Jesus Christ for the entire Church is changing--again--and for the second time in Millennials' short lifetimes.

Though the death of Pope John Paul II occurred in 2005 when members of Generation Y were relatively young, this first transition still had a significant effect on their lives. For example, Greg Hirsh, a 25-year-old beer salesman in Durham, NC, said that like "the death of any iconic and loving public figure," he was sad. "Seeing him in his prime and connecting on such a personal level with the youth and elderly alike was second to none." Similarly, 27-year-old Greg Mulholland, a student in the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto, CA, said Pope John Paul II's passing touched him. "[H]e had done a lot to bring young people into the Church and [to] reach out to other faith communities and nations in the developing world."

As these young people have aged, in a world influenced by papal-related thrillers like Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" no less, they have also found themselves discussing the circumstances, traditions, and rules surrounding the papacy now that this world leader is changing again. "Most of my friends are not Catholic, and I have found myself fielding many questions about the papacy as a result of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's resignation," said Kenneth Ball, a 27-year-old doctoral student in Raleigh, NC. Some of those questions also come from Catholics themselves. Marian Bull, a 24-year-old online editor in New York City who was baptized in the Catholic Church a few years ago in college, is "honestly not sure what to make of the resignation. It still confuses me and likely always will."

Millennials are similarly not sure what to make of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's legacy. Mulholland said that "changing the text of the Mass in English" had a significant impact on his worship, and "the way that [Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI] and the Church administration have either played down or left unaddressed important issues has made me feel less connected to the Church." Nonetheless, "the Church has made laudable progress in ecumenical dialogue with some liturgical Protestant denominations," said Ball. While this may be the case, several young Catholics noted that communicating Catholicism's teachings to the secular society and even non-Catholic Protestant institutions remains more difficult than ever.

This generation, who will remember hearing about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's resignation via Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard, and other mobile apps, has no qualms about what it would like to see in the next successor of Saint Peter. Some consider the secular duties of the papal office to be the most important, like Bull, who said that the next pope should display "[l]iberalism, management skills, and an understanding of media and the Vatican's image." Others believe the focus should be on spiritual matters. The next pope should have "[t]he ability to lead and to have an abundant love for all of Christ's children unborn to born," said Hirsh.

And still other Millennials believe the focus of selecting the new leader of the Catholic Church should be, in part, on modernizing the Holy See. "It is no longer simply sufficient that the pope exists, says Ball. "As the Church grows and faces new challenges, future popes will... be expected to meet these challenges with institutional transparency and youthful energy."

Members of Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, the Boomer Generation, or Generation Me, all agree, however, that the Catholic Church needs a change, and the transition of its leader is the prime opportunity to disrupt the status quo. "I know that no pope can turn a ship as large as the [Catholic] Church quickly, but change will only come if the new pope makes it clear from the outset that such change is necessary," says Mulholland.

Until that change occurs, which Church officials say will hopefully happen before March 24, or Palm Sunday, these young adults, who have been stereotyped as jobless, basement dwellers who care about only themselves, will keep praying. "I don't think we will ever see [another] pope resign in our lifetime," says Hirsh. I wake up every morning, and pray for life... I listen when He asks me to listen."