Nicolai Bajanov plays a church organ. “It felt like being in a holy army,” Bajanov said of his attendance at a men’s retreat.
(Courtesy  Nicolai Bajanov )
Nicolai Bajanov plays a church organ. “It felt like being in a holy army,” Bajanov said of his attendance at a men’s retreat. (Courtesy Nicolai Bajanov )
Most young Catholic men either leave the church or carry on a marginal Catholic existence.

According to the Minnesota-based New Emangelization Project (misspelling intentional), 1 in 3 baptized Catholic males in the U.S. have left the church. Of those who remain, only about a quarter consider themselves practicing Catholics. About 4 in 5 have not been to confession in the past year. About 3 in 5 do not receive the Eucharist even once a month.

So what makes young men who are active Catholics tick?

Scott Woltze, a street evangelist in Portland who meets many young people grappling with their life paths, has observed that those who return to or join the church are engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition.

“Cultural Catholicism died with our parents’ generation, and now it’s a choice more than an inheritance,” said Woltze. “The young people coming back often know the faith, church history, the saints better than Catholics who have sat in the pews for decades. I also think God has lit a fire under them, so they want a challenging faith.”

Woltze said young people are attracted to fasting, radical service to the poor, advocacy for the unborn, late-night adoration, the daily Rosary and openness to many children.

“I have also noticed they resist the easy left/right divide,” said Woltze. “They are skeptical and frustrated with both political parties, and are skeptical of capitalism and all of the social and moral changes it has swept forward. All of them hate racism, though they are also wary of how race is instrumentalized in politics and culture.”

According to Woltze, serious young people want a challenging faith because they have tried what the world has to offer and found it lacking: consumerism, endless dating, the college job track, never-ending diversions via entertainment.

“They have found themselves lonely and alienated at a deep level,” said Woltze. “But this profound alienation is actually a grace because they come to understand that the source of the alienation is that they are separated from God — who is the very source of our being and life. Moreover, they come to understand that all beauty, truth and goodness come from God.”

Here is a look at four young zealous Catholic men in western Oregon.

He took a new look at Catholicism

Levi Barros, 26, was raised Baptist in Brazil. He and his family tried several Protestant congregations, most of them anti-Catholic. None seemed right to young Levi, who had developed a love for reason. He reveled in argument. Then a friend urged him to take a new look at Catholicism. Barros discovered that Catholic thinkers over millennia had thought through the nature of Christ, the Eucharist, the role of the church, morality and social action.

The intellectual tradition of the church hooked him.

“If I couldn’t defend my faith in a court of law, I didn’t want it,” he said.

He began reading and was fascinated by Catholic moral teaching that touched on taboo topics that matter in people’s lives and are the content of many confessions. He felt his childhood tradition had skirted around a lot of truth in order to maintain a false sense of happiness. Barros changed the way he lived and entered the Catholic Church.

In 2019, he joined St. Stephen Parish in Southeast Portland, home to other zealous young Catholics. He prays the rosary, goes to confession and attends nights when parishioners talk philosophy. He sings in the choir. He dresses up for Mass and holds doors open for women. If men wore fedoras still, he’d tip his to passersby.

Looking back, Barros realizes he was not content to live focused only on Jesus as a happy feeling. Of course there is joy, he said, but that is not all of life. He wanted something big and real and true.

About to get married, Barros works as a contractor doing masonry and plaster. He is glad to be linked to Catholicism and a parish.

“To be spiritual but not religious,” he said, “is like taking a ship out into the ocean without a map.”

‘Like being in a holy army’

Nicolai Bajanov was born and raised Catholic. He grew up in Sandy and was homeschooled by Catholic parents. He never stopped practicing, but his faith has grown exponentially.

The turning point came when Bajanov was a University of Portland student. He attended a men’s conference at St. Joseph Parish in Salem, drawn by the ad poster for the event featuring a crusader kneeling in prayer. That touched off something in Bajanov, who was seeking a warrior-like component to his spiritual life. He sensed that young men today are in a battle against vices and temptations. While critics say military imagery is not in keeping with the nonviolent life of Jesus, some young men find it spiritually motivating.

“I was pretty Catholic, but did not have a very deep relationship with Christ,” Bajanov said.

He convinced his father to attend the conference and the event was a revolution of faith for both. There, scores of men stood and belted out hymns.

“It felt like being in a holy army,” Bajanov said.

His piety skyrocketed and he noticed that his father became a faith leader for the family. Both began to yearn for awe and reverence in liturgy.

Now 25, Bajanov is a member of St. Stephen Parish who attends Mass always and confession regularly. He even became the church organist.

During the pandemic, he said, his Catholic friends have gotten him through the hard times.

In addition to directing church music, he is co-owner of a family company that produces hair and skin products.

Bajanov believes young people are looking for something serious, challenging and counter-cultural.

“Orthodoxy and continuity with tradition will help young people take a new look at Catholicism,” he said. “They want unwavering faithfulness to the truth.”

Bajanov encourages his peers to surround themselves with good people, perhaps older men who are role models.

“Stay strong to your convictions and stay with what God put in your heart,” he said.

Faith and science

Erik Morris, 29, found his way to Catholicism via the relationship between faith and science. The story starts in 2016 when Morris, then a nondenominational Protestant, had a crisis of faith while finishing engineering studies at the University of Oregon.

He had been studying astronomy and cosmology and heard about Father Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest and physicist who first noted the expanding universe and in the 1930s helped articulate the Big Bang theory.

“I thought, ‘Wow. The Catholics seem like a scientifically literate group,’” Morris said. “That was what really drew me in — the intellectual depth the church has.”

He started reading about early church history and became convinced the Catholic Church possessed the fullness of the deposit of faith. In 2017, he entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Stephen Parish and in 2018 went through the sacrament of confirmation and became Catholic.

“It is a comforting feeling to know my metaphysical beliefs align with my beliefs about the world,” said Morris.

He wants to help the wider culture know that faith and science are partners, not foes.

Eventually, Morris began to sense God’s deep call and has entered Mount Angel Seminary for the Archdiocese of Portland. Some people think he’s crazy. He can bear that, in part, because his choices make so much common sense to him now.

“If given a chance to really reason things out, people would come to the same conclusion as the church,” Morris said.

That does not mean all church teachings are popular.

He realizes that western Oregon is a missionary field and that people who know faith and science are well poised to enter it and engage with skeptics.

“It’s important for people to know the truth is out there and can be known,” Morris said. “If they are willing to grapple with it, it will be worth it.”

Morris has observed in the wider culture, where people are spiritual but not religious, that loneliness and alienation are commonplace. Young men are particularly off track, he said. “Men have a more difficult time expressing emotions without ridicule,” said Morris, explaining that as an impediment to faith.

‘Intellectual richness’

Marriage made a more serious Catholic of Charles Gray, 35.

He’d grown up Catholic in Southeast Portland, went to Catholic school and never lost his faith. But at a certain point, his body went to Mass while his heart didn’t. He received the Eucharist largely by rote and took part in no other sacraments. By his 20s, he was akin to a church-going agnostic.

“I thought God had some part to play but not a big role in my life,” he said.

The key moment came when he started dating Hannah, who would become his wife. She was more active in the faith. When they attended Mass together, it reignited a yearning in his heart.

“Being with her provided an environment to be able to explore faith and the deeper meanings around it and see how rich our traditions are,” Gray said.

He began to read and study more, falling even more deeply into accord with church teachings, including those on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of life. He saw the logic in it all. Both his mind and his heart got into the action.

“I have always admired the intellectual richness of the church,” he said. “The church has the philosophy and theology to explain why things are the way they are. But now I also experience the emotional side of my faith. It is a big part of why I feel fulfilled.”

Gray, a software engineer, has learned the importance of prayer, especially in marriage. Praying as a couple has deepened the Grays’ relationship.

His faith is no longer just his own. It’s shared and it’s stronger.

“I am not just on auto pilot,” he said. “I have more conviction. If called out on it, I feel like I’d be more apt to stand my ground.”