Pope John Paul II is getting the kind of welcome America's youths usually reserve for rock stars.
They cheer his motorcade. They pack his sermons. But when the lights go off and the stage comes down, it's not clear how closely they will adhere to the strictures of any organized religion.
Take Katherine Cox, a sophomore here at St. Louis University. She attends mass regularly. Two weeks ago, she decided she wants to become a nun. Yet, despite her enthusiasm for the pope's two-day visit, which wraps up today, she disagrees with him on key issues, such as the ordination of women priests and the use of birth control.
"He's a holy man and we listen to him," she says after attending a song-filled prayer vigil for the pope. But "I think it's up to us to search and pray and figure out."
That's the challenge of the so-called Generation X. Many young Americans hunger for a more spiritual life. They thirst for connection to a broader movement. But often they find it hard to commit to any one religion.
Although active in community service, many lack an interest in organized religion. Increasingly, they look to their own conscience rather than religious teaching to sort out the truth. That has lead to a broad-minded search, often among many religious traditions, church leaders say. The danger is that youths will adopt an amorphous belief system that won't last, they add.
"The Catholic Church has really been rocked by that - the do-your-own-thing, pick a little here and a little there," says Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
The challenge reaches beyond Catholicism. "When people say that they're Catholic or that they're Baptist or that they're Presbyterian, it really doesn't mean very much," says Jeffrey Arnett, visiting professor of human development at the University of Maryland in College Park. "When you talk to them, it turns out that they believe all sorts of things."
Plight of mainline churches
Already, there's a backlash. While most young people are religiously eclectic, a significant minority are joining evangelical denominations, which emphasize strict obedience to church doctrine. According to Professor Arnett, roughly one-quarter of young people in their 20s are frustrated by the openness of mainline churches and are looking for something more solid.
"Almost every part of our lives is open to question: one's own sexual identity, economic future, the sense of ephemerality about our culture, and the sense that everything could be otherwise," adds Tom Beaudoin, a fellow Gen-Xer, Catholic theologian, and author of a book on Gen-Xers and faith. Most "people respond: 'Well, it's up to me to make the most beautiful painting I can with the colors I've got.' And that palette may include Buddhism, Judaism. But the other response is to try to cancel the ambiguity.... There's a significant minority for whom all the questions are answered."
The result is that vocal, conservative congregations are visibly swelling while pews of mainstream religions remain unfilled. "For the mainline churches, what they teach may actually be more similar to what [young people] believe," Arnett says. "But the ones who believe those things don't feel that they have to come to the church."
In his surveys of young people in their 20s, more than 90 percent say religion is important and that they believe in a God that watches over them and guides their lives. But only one-third say it's important to attend religious services.
Yet some congregations, especially on college campuses, are remaking themselves to bring young people back.
One big draw is working in the community. "Students on this campus are very into community service, social justice," says Hyim Shafner, rabbi at St. Louis Hillel on the Washington University campus. So five years ago, the Jewish group hooked up with the Catholic Student Center and started preparing and transporting meals for the homeless every Sunday afternoon.
Another push at Washington University: more modern worship. A year ago, the Lutheran campus ministry started a Sunday night service. Out went the organ, in came a flute, piano, guitar, and bass. Students run much of the service. For communion, they pass the bread and cup among one another rather than have it administered to them.
The Catholic Student Center on campus has seen the most dramatic turnaround. In eight years, registration has ballooned from 45 to 900. "A huge issue for this generation is integrity," says the Rev. Gary Braun, director of the center. "The question that comes up again and again is: 'Can I belong to something when I don't believe everything about it?' "
His answer is yes. "They're not going to experience a clergy here that are answer-people. We're fellow seekers." Mr. Braun adds.
Besides Catholics, the center regularly attracts Episcopalians, Lutherans, and at least one Buddhist.
Openness vs. unity
Such liberal practices stand in contrast to the message often delivered by the pope. Despite democratic political stands, the pope repeatedly invokes the need for Catholics to submit to Rome's authority on religious matters. "When he silences theologians or refuses to discuss married priesthood or women's ordination, he is calling for unity," says Joe Favazza, a religion professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. The pope is saying: " 'You do what I say because ultimately that will be the guarantor of your freedom. You've got to trust me on this.' In the American church there's a growing body of folks who don't trust him on that."
Especially young Americans. In St. Louis, "you're going to see thousands of people whoop and holler, and then they're all going to go back to their homes and practice birth control and push for women as priests," Professor Favazza adds. "Maybe because they grew up in families that were disconnected, there's a deep desire to connect with a broader community. But ... they still want to be independent."