7 Questions With Kate Dugan about Millennial Missionaries

I emailed with Katherine Dugan recently about her new book!

Katherine Dugan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in Massachusetts and the author of Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool (Oxford 2019). Her current research is on Catholics and family planning in the contemporary U.S.

(1) Tell the blog about the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries you hung out with and studied. How do they fit into the longer story of American Religious History? 

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) started, officially, in 1998 by two lay Catholic men who wanted to both revive and spread Catholic identity among college students. They adopted models of evangelical Protestant collegiate outreach, mixed it with a version of devout yet contemporary Catholicism, and created one of the fastest growing (and well-funded) Catholic organizations in the country.

The way FOCUS works is that recent college graduates commit to being an on-campus missionary for two years. Actually, as I write this, the new and returning missionaries for 2019-20 are at New Staff Training. They receive a crash course in Catholic catechesis, fundraising, and strategic outreach to college students. And then they move to one of the FOCUS campuses around the country (and, since my book came out, also a few international sites). Missionaries partner with Newman Centers and Catholic Campus Ministries. And, day in and day out, they invite college students to join Bible studies and attend Mass and be Catholic out loud.

I studied FOCUS and their missionaries because I had questions about contemporary young adult religious identity and Catholic practice in the twenty-first century. And as I tried to understand how FOCUS missionaries fit into American religious history, I was always trying to keep two historical trends in balance: the role of generational shifts in Americans’ religious identity and US Catholic historical trends.

First, millennials as a generation. They seem to be part of an interreligious trend in “orthodoxy.” The larger story about Millennials (born, depending on who you ask 1980/81-1996) is that they are defecting from religious communities. Places like Pew regularly tout out the increasing number of young adults who check “none of the above” on the religious affiliation survey. But I think there is a counter to this—perhaps, actually, the flip side of nones. The same forces that led millennials to defect from religious communities also led to this sort of doubling down on religious identity. I definitely don’t think this is the first time in American religious history that cultural forces like economic downturn and liberalizing of cultural norms has caused different reactions. But I do think there is a sense among sociologists—and maybe historians, too—that defecting makes more “sense.” That, of course, rigid religious ideas no longer hold the same power they once did. But what I found is that the missionaries—the young adults who sign up for FOCUS—simply have a different response to those cultural shifts. What makes “sense” to them is to find order, clear answers, and (especially this, I think) a community that reinforces the ideas of Catholicism.

The second way to get at this question is from the narrower perspective of US Catholic history. I think a lot of (progressive?) Catholics want to think that FOCUS is a sort of aberration or a real surprise in US Catholic history. But what I found—and argue in the first chapter—is that they are really a natural outgrowth of a handful of postconciliar trends in the U.S. These include the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and Pope John Paul II, particularly his visit to Denver in 1993. FOCUS is also a very post-Vatican II movement. Another impulse that I have to push against when I talk about FOCUS is the “oh, they just want to go back to before the council.” No; no, they really do not. This is a lay movement. I remember standing at the Matt Maher concert at my first national SEEK conference, in 2013. There were thousands of lay people around me—and maybe, like ten priests. As much as Call to Action and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps is a movement made possible by Vatican II, FOCUS (and other like-minded orgs), draws on the same documents on lay leadership.

All of that is to say that I interpret the way FOCUS missionaries are Catholic as very much a contemporary interpretation of Catholicism in the twenty-first century.

(2) I found the point you made in your introduction (page 16) about the generational formation of religious subjects -- here, American Catholics -- to be very compelling. What goes into the creation of a Millennial Catholicism? 

You’ve put this better than I did! Right, so one of the things I thought a lot about when I was writing and researching about FOCUS missionaries was what difference age makes in the way people are religious. Certainly, I was thinking about the levels of anxiety among millennials in college, the economic downturn that many of the missionaries I knew—in 2013-2015—faced when they graduated, as well as the increasing rise of “nones” among their peers.

But, especially in the case of US Catholics, this question is not just age or generation. For Catholics in Catholic history, religious subjectivity is shaped by “number of years born after Vatican II.” So part of what is compelling to me about the these young adults is the way they are traversing between being twenty-first century Catholics who also have this sort of idealized image of pre-Vatican II Catholic community. I found that part of what informed their subjectivity formation is trying to balance the legacy of changes after Vatican II with a real desire to be stitched into deep Catholic history.

Building on what I suggested above, one of the things that makes FOCUS missionaries compelling in American religious history is that they are this example of taking their cultural and religious contexts and really working on them. Part of this is the idealism of being twenty-three, but missionaries were really confident that they could, as the motto puts it, “set the world on fire.”

To more directly answer your question: I’m not sure there is a “Millennial Catholicism,” but there certainly is a Millennial FOCUS Catholicism!” Demographers and cultural observers have frequently described Millennials as self-absorbed and looking for clear answers. I suspect that one of the reasons FOCUS has been able to grow so quickly and raise so much money so fast is because they have been able to tap into the anxieties of being an “emerging adult,” present Catholicism as the answer to personal crisis, and give clear instructions on how to respond to worried observations about the world around them.

(3) You found that prayer, both individually and communally, is central to the life of a FOCUS missionary. Did it surprise you to find out how central prayer is to their mission? These millennials have special relationships with the saints; they spend an hour in silent prayer each day (!) (Holy Hour);  they pour over specific bible verses in extended meditations; and they read texts (particularly books on the theology of the body) as a mode of prayer. You note in several places how this prayer is social and relational. 

I was, initially, shocked by the sheer number of hours these young adults spent in prayer or praying or talking about praying. And one of the things that was surprising was just how wide their range was for the kinds of prayer they either knew or were learning.

While it was surprising at first, one of the things I really loved about studying FOCUS missionaries was hearing about their prayer practices. This is (I hope!) clear in the book. I remember, at first, my field notes had these lists of the kinds of prayers I heard referenced—and then I started adding lists of saints that I’d hear about and, eventually, I kept track of the different verbs missionaries used to talk about their “prayer.” I was both overwhelmed and fascinated.

I think one of the reasons missionaries’ prayer practices are compelling to me—and, I think, for the study of American religion—is the sheer amount of agency that missionaries assigned to prayer. Prayer certainly happened in chapels and in quiet corners between two friends. But prayer was also an agent of evangelization, a way to be sustained in the work, a connection between peers and with saints, as well as the required work of becoming a good Catholic. I had to fight against what I realized was a sloppy instinct to argue, “they’re praying all the time!” That wasn’t quite right. They prayed a lot, but they also were clear about choosing what one missionary called “prayer mode” or “time with Jesus.”

I also think these practices are compelling because they were so diverse in form. I knew a lot about Catholic prayers before I started this research, but that paled in comparison to the kinds of prayer FOCUS missionaries did. And they were sort of unabashed in drawing from a range of sources—many periods in Catholic history, Protestant examples, and occasionally some yoga and meditation practices from Eastern religions.

But one of the things that you note in your question—that I hope my work contributes to the study of prayer—is that this was not just a personal or individual thing. Yes, prayer was part of their dynamic subjectivity formation. But it was also how they connected with each other and how they reinforced their ideals of what it meant to be Catholic.

(4) Did these Millennial Catholics actually succeed in making Catholicism cool? On the one hand, they adapt Catholicism to culture: I-Phones, Facebook, Red Bull, and they even appropriate Evangelical approaches to a personal relationship with Jesus. On the other hand, FOCUS missionaries "challenge" culture: they push back against secular equality; they find modern college life vacuous; they champion orthodox Church teachings; and they are devoutly committed to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. You say they "reject culture while relying on it" (page 14) and you note that they do not "stand outside the world" but "participate in making it" (page 116). Is this the central tension of their mission and your book? Can Catholicism only be made "cool" in certain ways? Or does Catholicism become "cool" in its very challenge to the culture?

This is a great way of framing the question of missionaries’ effectiveness. There have been several times in my research when people asked me—and missionaries would ask themselves, actually—about how many college students missionaries really converted. FOCUS has regular internal debates about how to count this for things like their annual report and in conversations with funders and bishops. Could they really make Catholicism cool enough to attract the many Catholics who have “fallen away?”

FOCUS struggled, at least when I was doing my work, with this question of effectiveness. There’s a history of observers deriding FOCUS as “babysitters for college students.” I think this tension between how to be both really engaged in their cultural context of college students and early 20-something middle-class Americans AND fully Catholic actually reflects the nature of Catholicism in the U.S. Which is to say: yes, I think it is a central tension for these missionaries, but their struggle with it has made me wonder if it is a struggle for Catholicism, more broadly.

I remember having a conversation with a missionary about politics; it was 2015, so Trump wasn’t an issue, but Roe vs. Wade was a constant concern for missionaries, as was changing laws on LGBTQ rights and marriages. The death penalty was coming up in political conversations. Every once in a while, Kennedy would get mentioned as a Catholic leader who didn’t live up to his Catholic ideals. And this missionary pointed out that Catholics don’t fit in either party. And he liked that—it was a positive for him that Catholicism stands outside the available frameworks.

When I was thinking about how to evaluate FOCUS’ impact on college culture, in American religious life, and within US Catholicism, I eventually decided to step away from the numbers (which are, of course, important—and, frankly, significant). Instead, I settled on the tension your point out: FOCUS missionaries are creatively trying to navigate being Catholic and being middle-class American 20-somethings. They offer an example of how Catholicism is both dependent on its cultural context and also working on it. What makes Catholicism “cool,” in this context, is this sort of irascible relationship with US culture.

(5) You jogged with these missionaries. You sat down for coffee with them. You prayed the Holy Hour with them. You attended big FOCUS conferences. Tell us about your favorite moment in the research process. Is one particular moment or interaction memorable? Do you have a favorite missionary? 

It's funny that you point out the jogging—people often catch that one! As I say in my acknowledgements—and I don’t mean this in any cliché or flippant way—I really am grateful to the missionaries I came to know; they welcomed me in and shared their lives with me. And, as is the nature of ethnographic work, I was closer to some than others. My personality matched some better than others and there were some missionaries with whom I just naturally got along.

There really are two moments that stand out. One was that jog with one of the missionaries. She was so articulate about the role of saints in her life—and, really, quite generous in trying to help me think through my own concerns. I remember being struck by just how immanent and dynamic the saints are for missionaries.

The second was at the end of the first school-year, as missionaries were getting ready to leave campus for the summer. I had joined them for Holy Hour that morning and knew it was their last day on campus. Two of them would be back the next year, but two of them were moving to different campuses. And one was leaving FOCUS. We were standing around after Holy Hour, chatting about the summer and saying good, longwinded Midwestern good-byes. And I realized that I was going to miss these missionaries. It was this poignant reminder of the role of relationships in this kind of research.

(6) Your research reveals the centrality of gender roles to this missionary identity. Tell the blog about "the feminine genius" and "authentic masculinity."   What are these missionaries searching for when they seek to embody these modes of being? 

I have to say that I really did not want to study gender and sexuality in this project, but it eventually became so unavoidable that there are TWO chapters dedicated to the themes!

I avoided the topics because this was part of their subjectivity that was probably the most confusing to me. I would watch these young, confident women try to figure out how to be submissive to the men in their lives. I would listen to these young men talk about leading women and trying to learn how to be the heads of their family. And I should say, I was doing this while teaching undergraduates. So I was constantly—and, usually unconsciously—comparing missionaries to my students.

But, eventually, I had to admit that my field notes were FULL of conversations about dating and gender roles and marriage, as well as references to John Paul II’s theology of the body and concerns about how to live up to Catholic ideals of gender complementarity.

Your question is a good one—what does this emphasis on gender roles say about what they are they looking for? I can remember the moment this crystalized for me. I was at one of the big FOCUS conferences and I was listening to a male speaker talk about dating to an all-women audience. He gave instructions like, “expect a man to buy you a warm beverage on a date” and “wait for a guy to ask you out.” I can remember being sort of shocked by the hundreds of young women who were on their edge of their seats listening with rapt attention. As I sat there trying to figure out what the appeal was, I thought about several interviews where female missionaries had told me about terrible dating situations, nasty sexual encounters, and really appalling experiences at Greek-life parties. And I realized that these women around me just need an alternative—to know that there is some alternative to that out there. In some ways, that’s what this emphasis on gender roles gave missionaries.

(7) Overall, in a broad sense, what do you think these Millennials are really searching for? Why do they want to dedicate years of the lives to this mode of missionary Catholicism?

One thing that matters here is a sense of community and connection. In that way, they are really no different than other millennials who reach out for community in other mechanisms. FOCUS offers community, sense of duty, as well as some practical leaderships skills and training in fundraising.

Another way that they are similar to other “emerging adults,” in this middle-class transition between college and a more settled career path, is that they are trying to do meaningful work.

But I think that the fact that they choose to do both of these things through this very particular interpretation of being Catholic has to do with their sense of being let down by aspects of US, middle-class, young-adult culture. It also has to do with the role of religious experiences in their lives. I try to get at this in my introduction, as I talk about Emma and NAME. But I don’t think I could over-emphasize the importance of missionaries having had some rather dramatic experience of God in their pre-missionary life. It takes all sort of forms, but FOCUS missionaries are trained to talk about their religious identities in terms of “conversion.”  And while that might sound simplistic, there is a sense that this drives their commitment

(8) What is your next project? 

My next project takes up questions of what happens when these devout, orthodox, committed Catholics grow up. How does their Catholicism shift when they are not surrounded by like-minded young adults? What is life like in the Catholic pews for former missionaries and for Catholics trying to adhere to strict interpretations of Catholic teaching? The theme of the tensions between contemporary culture and Catholic practice persist.

I’m about a year into ethnographic work on Catholics who practice Natural Family Planning (NFP). NFP was in the air among missionaries—but the missionaries in my research were either not married yet or got married near the end of my research. If the topic came up, these missionaries planned to do NFP; there was an NFP talk at their Summer Training; I heard about several alumni who had become NFP teachers after their time as a missionary. My curiosity about NFP was piqued then.

My work on NFP is trying to think through the ins and outs of this subculture of American Catholicism. I’m trying to understand what motives Catholics to do NFP and how they stay committed to it. I’m curious about how NFP connects to questions about pro-life activism, to Catholic identity, and non-Catholic forms of tracking fertility cycles.


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