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Holier than thou: The rise of Gen Z Catholicism

Sabrina Carpenter makes like Madonna in the video for Feather (Sabrina Carpenter)
Sabrina Carpenter makes like Madonna in the video for Feather (Sabrina Carpenter)

A veiled Sabrina Carpenter leaning provocatively against an ornate golden altar covered in kitsch sugared almond crucifixes like some 2024 Madonna. Shia LaBeouf kneeling in his bashed up white trainers surrounded by Franciscan monks at his confirmation. The Hot Priest himself, Andrew Scott, descending on Hollywood with his Irish babygirls Paul Mescal and Barry Keoghan. TikTok’s new, deep obsession with Traditional Latin Mass? It seems that Gen Z is suddenly all about Catholicism.

To anyone who knows me, I seem pretty irreligious. Yeah, I was married by a monk, grew up surrounded by holy water and have even been to Lourdes and the Vatican, butI don’t go to church. I have several divergences from the faith I was brought up in: around abortion and LGBTQ+ rights to love whoever they want. And yet… give me a form to tick a box on, I still put Catholic. It’s ingrained. The incense is upon me.

So when I saw that Gen Z were converting, finding themselves at (the most intensive, highest of Latin) mass, and that there are Catholic influencers, I was piqued. Even the baddest of Hollywood bad lads, LaBeouf has found redemption following abuse claims, shedding his worldly possessions while playing beloved, stigmata-ridden Saint Padre Pio and being embraced by the Capuchin monks in California.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian sect in the world with over a billion followers. Which means, by the process of elimination, even if 48 per cent of Gen Z ascribe to no religion, if 14 per cent consider themselves Catholic, then that’s still a significant chunk of change. But how signed up do they need to be?

Delphine Chui, now 34, was living what she now calls ‘an unfulfilling secular life’ working on magazines, but after a close family bereavement eight years ago, she found that her work and twenty-something social life was no longer giving her the dopamine hit required to make it through the depression. First, she decided to start a charity to see if altruismwould help, then experimented with the Hillsong Church, until eventually she arrived back at her original faith, ‘reverting’ to Catholicism.

‘I felt I needed something,’ she says. ‘And the beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass, which I’d never been exposed to, changed my life. It was not without growing pains, because my values are different to some of my friends. That’s been challenging.’

Traditional Latin Mass, or TLM, is central to luring Gen Z to the pews. Conducted in liturgical Latin, it is a switch back from when the Novus Ordo (New Order Mass) was created in the 1960s to make the Church more approachable to a modern audience. ‘The term “Catholic” means universal, so I love when I go to another country and go to a Latin Mass and follow it completely,’ says Chui. ‘It transcends, no matter where you are. Part of it got a little bit lost when we started doing it in local languages.’

And the mysterious transcendental chants, myrrh-plumed aura, lace veils and opulent interior art of the churches that conduct it are ripe for TikTok’s aesthetic-driven audience to restore its popularity.

Shia LaBeouf at his confirmation (Shia LaBeouf)
Shia LaBeouf at his confirmation (Shia LaBeouf)

Chui attends TLM at St Bede’s in Clapham. The congregation she’s discovered there has ‘a median age of 22’, that has grown three-fold since the pandemic. She runs talks for youth groups on travailing modern dating while Catholic. They are ‘a mix’, she says, of the Gen Z attendees. ‘You do have some who are quite socially awkward, who’ve not quite found their place in life and have a real desire for community.’

She puts this down to a generation more comfortable online than in real life. But it does appeal to a more social crowd, too. ‘On the flip side, I’m actually seeing really cool young people: fashionable, very switched on to politics, lifestyle, pop culture. They’re really drawn in by the beauty and the aesthetic tradition.’

The numbers stack up. At last count there were nearly 910 million views of #darkcatholicismaesthetic on TikTok — #catholic has an astonishing 9 billion views. That’s a hell (sorry) of a lot of people interested in looking at images of filigreed rotundas, Jesus hanging from the cross and Marys crying tears of blood set to foreboding soundtracks.

By its nature — as with the institution it worships at the altar of — #catholiccore is intense. That the ostensibly left-leaning Gen Z is having a sudden chaste encounter with all things holy seems at odds with a set of people more likely than ever before to identify as LGBTQ+. Mulleted Aussie Gen Z-er @JohnIsCatholic, 20, has 104k followers on TikTok, where he uses cricket to demonstrate the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. ‘I think what draws Gen Z to Catholicism is how radically different it is to our modern secular culture. Where the secular culture pushes us toward infidelity, Catholicism encourages monogamous, loving relationships. Where culture draws us toward over-indulgent consumerism, Catholicism inspires us to be temperate and find satisfaction in what truly matters — our relationship with Christ.’

Chui sees a rise in what she calls ‘trads’ in this generation. ‘With TLM, I think there’s a big kind of trad aesthetic. I think Gen Z are drinking less these days, sleeping around much less — they’re much more conservative than millennials. A lot of my younger friends in their 20s are married with children.’

Pregnant military wife @ceciliajeanblog (41.5k followers), 27 this year, is a Jemima Kirke lookalike with a podcast on modern life as a woman of faith called What in the Dang Heck. She recently arranged a pilgrimage to France for a large group of her young, female followers. ‘Gen Z is sick of fluff. They don’t want surface-level sermons, they want realness, truth, accountability and a clear path to virtue. We’re the first generation to have all the information in the world at its fingertips. And with information comes the opportunity for people to search for “meaning of life”. And the search for truth will always bring someone to the steps of Catholicism.’

Traditionalism is one of the negatives levelled against TLM: Pope Francis has even issued a set of constraints, seeing it as a threat to the gains made by the church.

Of course, the Catholic Church has been mired in controversy since day dot, whether it’s Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries hiding the deaths of countless children, the child abuse scandals covered up by seemingly every diocese in the past two centuries and a whole lot of crusading in the name of holy imperialism. Seeing the good in God is hard when there’s so much smear on the lens.

Which is why, while I’d happily tell friends that I believe every word of my horoscope and would happily go to a gong bath, actually admitting to be religious in this day and age seems pretty unusual. What I do know is that Catholicism has inextricably altered my psyche. In some small, light ways — I love having a nosy round churches when I’m on a mini break and still light candles in memory of my grandmother — and other dark ways, like the intrinsic guilt I feel about everything from forgetting to give my kids their five a day, to the loss of children in world conflicts.

I’m not sure Catholic guilt filters through on TikTok, and I don’t think this is what #catholiccore is really about. Yes, it seems like it’s all about aesthetics, but as Chui points out, ‘learning about the transcendentals of how God communicates with us through truth, beauty and goodness’ was a major reason behind her reversion. @JohnisCatholic agrees: ‘Beauty innately draws people to ponder on greater things… the intangible, the eternal — Heaven. And I think the “aesthetic” videos may revive our modern culture’s appreciation for such beauty.’ It seems God is all around us. Even on TikTok.