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Sydney’s a church of Millennials

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Young men praying. Photo: Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2023

A new diocesan profile shows our archdiocese is well above average for 20-39 year olds

As hundreds of Sydney pilgrims conclude their World Youth Day adventure, a new analysis has shown the Archdiocese of Sydney is unique among Australia’s metropolitan sees for having retained Millennial and Gen Z adults.

The National Centre for Pastoral Research’s Sydney Diocesan Profile, an analysis of the 2021 census data released this week, has shown that despite an overall ageing of the church in Australia Sydney’s share of young adults is several percentage points higher than the national average.

Sydney’s 30-39 year old cohort—the bulk of the Millennial generation—sits at 14 per cent of the total Catholic population of the archdiocese, two percentage points higher than the national average and only half a percent lower than the previous census, five years earlier.

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The archdiocese’s share of 20-29 year olds also sits higher than the national average, at 12.5 compared to 10.5 per cent.

The Sydney figures buck the national trend that has seen a collapse in affiliation between ages 19 and 50, leading to a median age of 40 compared to the national median of 43.

The Diocese of Parramatta is likewise tracking younger, at a median age of 39, with above-average numbers of children and teenagers under age 19, but fewer young adults.

According to the diocesan profile, Sydney’s 590,175 Catholics make up 22.9 per cent of our city’s population of 2.58 million, higher than the national average of 20 per cent.

We are also increasingly a church of migrants, with 36 per cent of Sydney Catholics born overseas—229,474, and the lion’s share of those from non-English speaking countries. The top five countries for overseas-born Catholics are the Philippines, Italy, Iraq, Vietnam and Lebanon; recent arrivals are most likely to come from Latin America, especially Colombia and Brazil.

Daniel Ang, the director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, was encouraged by the strong presence of young adults in the Sydney diocesan profile. “It is heartening to see a slightly stronger affiliation with the Catholic faith in Sydney among this cohort (19-40 year olds) compared to the national average,” he said.

“It’s a period of life in which many people are discerning vocation and making life commitments, having families and when faith can be introduced to the next generation.

“The challenge of evangelisation is to enable this religious affiliation to be nourished by—and express —living, personal and sacramental faith, an invitation which our universities, parishes and local communities can extend to these critical generations”

Some Eastern Catholics recorded their affiliations by church in the 2021 census rather than checking the generic Catholic category, but were included by the NCPR in the total number of Sydney Catholics.

Maronites were the largest such group, with 21,275, followed by Chaldeans (7835) and Melkites (1379).

We are also a better-educated church, with 31 per cent of Sydney Catholics holding university degrees, compared to 12.3 per cent in 1996. Trudy Dantis, director of the NCPR, said working with such a large and rich data set allows for some interesting national findings to surface.

“We find, for example, that one archdiocese—Melbourne—has more than 20 per cent of the Australian Catholic population across its more than 200 parishes,” Dr Dantis said.

“The dioceses of Wagga Wagga, Bathurst and Parramatta each have 25 per cent or more of their overall population who are Catholic, well above the national average of 20 per cent.

“At 50, Lismore and Hobart have the highest average ages for Catholics, which we contrast with Broome at 33 and Darwin at 37.”

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