Can the Catholic Church keep millennials from passing it by?
August 15 marked two important events for New York-area Catholics this year. It was the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It was also the start of the Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. The Diocese of Bridgeport decided to celebrate both, with an event billed as “Baseball with the Bishop,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Young adults of the diocese were invited to attend the game. The group began the evening with Mass in Bridgeport, Conn., before boarding a charter bus bound for the Bronx.
In Yankee Stadium, section 427 is filled with young adults, who are cheering on their ball club alongside other young men sporting Roman collars. Bishop Frank Caggiano has come down with an illness and is nowhere to be found (as a Mets fan, perhaps the thought of being in Yankee Stadium was the cause). But none of the young adults in attendance seem to mind. There is a sense that they will see him another time.
In the top of the ninth, the Yankees have a one-run lead and one out to go, but John Grosso’s focus is divided between the game and telling me how much he loves working for his boss—Bishop Caggiano. “Working with him is an absolute joy. He loves the church, and he loves young people—and he’s so good with young people because he’s a real person,” Grosso says. Grosso is the director of social media for the Diocese of Bridgeport. As a 20-something himself, his perspective is helpful for determining what style of ministry might be useful for young people. As we talk, his eyes dart back and forth between me and the batter’s box. “Our goal is to make ourselves a little bit vulnerable, by putting ourselves out there in situations where you wouldn’t expect to see the church.” Like at a Major League Baseball game.
This type of outreach can be effective: Tanya Adler, 20, came to the game in response to an invitation. She motions toward her friends, Rich and John Kelly. “Yeah, we’re baseball fans, and we heard this announced after Mass and thought it would be cool to come out and meet the bishop.” The Kellys are brothers; one is a graduate of Fairfield Prep and the other is beginning his senior year there. Adler was raised Protestant, but she attended Catholic schools and goes to Mass occasionally with the Kelly family. Though she is not Catholic, she feels a pull to be more involved in church. “I’m not as active as I should be in a parish,” Ms. Adler said. “But it’s a work in progress. I’ll get there.”
At 24, I am well within the demographics that are of interest to John Grosso and his team, and I certainly understand what it means to be a spiritual work in progress. I go to Mass (most) weekends, try my best to pray during the week and have a small faith-sharing community in my parish that sustains me. But I wonder if I am a success story. I have spent plenty of time parish shopping—it took me a while to find a sacramental home. I have been the youngest person in the pews too many times. I can no longer count the number of churches I have walked in and out of without anyone saying hello and asking what my name was, or if I was new.
It would have been really easy for me not to search as long as I did for a solid community, to become yet another story of “I was raised Catholic, but….” I would like to think that it was a powerful conversion experience that I had as a teenager in youth group, where I felt with the conviction of Paul that I was loved unconditionally by God, that pushed me to find a faith community. On my more cynical days, I think I would have quit this a long time ago if my profession as an editor in Catholic media did not keep me engaged in my faith on a day-to-day basis.
Some of my colleagues hope that many of those young people who have been raised Catholic but have fallen away from the church will return when it is time to get married. I am not so sure. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 1990 there were 10 million people who referred to themselves as “former Catholics.” Last year, that number was more than 30 million. As for returning when it is time to get married? Well, those numbers do not look great either. There were 326,079 weddings in the church in 1990. In 2016, the number fell to just 145,916.
There were 326,079 weddings in the church in 1990. In 2016, the number fell to just 145,916.
The Vatican is also concerned. Pope Francis has announced that next year’s general assembly of the Synod of Bishops will focus on the topic “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” Young people ages 16 to 29 have been invited to participate in an online survey in preparation for the bishops’ meeting in October 2018. More recently, Pope Francis has called for a pre-synod meeting of young people, to be held March 19 to 24, 2018, to hear firsthand their hopes and concerns.
This is the latest effort, but not the first, that the institutional church has made to encourage participation among young people. St. John Paul II announced the first World Youth Day in 1983, and since that time, the event has attracted millions of young people to gather at locations around the globe. Yet, despite the success of such events, parishes, high schools and colleges still struggle to successfully reach a wider swath of individuals from this demographic. Many church ministers are working to re-examine the church’s relationship to youth and young adults. There is a reason that Pope Francis called this synod now.
Forming Faithful Leaders
It is April, and in the shadow of the Shrine of St. John Paul II in Washington, D.C., lay ministers from across the United States, all committed to working with young people, gather to discuss how best to serve a new generation of Catholics. They are here as participants in the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry’s National Diocesan Directors Institute. The institute sponsors any new diocesan director of youth and/or young adult ministry to come to Washington for a week of training and fellowship.
Tomorrow they will don business attire for their visit to the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but tonight many wear a more laid-back look—graphic tees, jeans, sandals—common to youth ministers, a role many of them held before taking their jobs in the chancery.
Doug Tooke, 41, stands in the front of the room, finishing up a presentation. As social hour begins, he walks away from the mini-fridge with a bottle: “My wedding ring is a sign of the sacrament I share with my wife, that I am the paterfamilias for my five beautiful daughters,” he pauses, “and it also opens beer!” Tooke is the master of ceremonies for the week. Doug is funny, charismatic and has what is commonly referred to a “big inside voice.”
Mr. Tooke has been involved in youth ministry for a long time. In 1998, he signed up to be the youth minister at St. Matthew’s parish in Kalispell, Mont., which at that time had a population of 14,000. He has been serving the youth of rural Montana ever since, and in December he was awarded the National Youth Ministry Award for Diocesan Ministry in a Rural Population.
Earlier, during a session on planning diocesan youth events, Mr. Tooke asked the ministers in the room to recall an event that had a significant impact on their own faith and vocation. After they discussed the question with their neighbor (this really was a room of youth ministers) he asked if anyone would like to share. Hands immediately flew up around the room (it was also a room of extroverts).
“World Youth Day,” one woman tells the group. “There was something about sitting in a field with thousands of people at a Mass being translated into five languages, with everyone listening in their audio receivers.” Another person mentions a social justice mission trip, and how she has seen some of her teens go off to Ivy League universities and then graduate with service-oriented jobs because of what happened on a trip. Another mentions a Steubenville Conference and looks around the room to see if she has to explain any further. People nod along, signaling they understand that she is describing a charismatic youth conference, one of 23 organized by Franciscan University of Steubenville and held throughout the country, that attract more than 50,000 Catholic teenagers each summer.
But as great as all these global and national events are, they may not be enough to create sustainable ministries in their individual dioceses, Mr. Tooke says. Too many places have an attitude of “Let’s put all of our resources into one annual event that shows we care about youth ministry!” instead of investing in sustainable, parish-based models.
“Retreat high” is a phrase common in youth ministry circles. It refers to that feeling of emotional or spiritual consolation that comes from an intense ministry event. But no high lasts forever, and youth ministers, who are often faced with tight budgets and differing amounts of ecclesial support, must figure out how to help youth build an ongoing relationship with God and a relationship to the church that sustains them the rest of the year. Many navigate a tension between experiential spiritual programs like World Youth Day, diocesan youth rallies, retreats and service trips, and the difficult and necessary work of developing localized models that give young people a deep faith and the relationships that will last them through the transition to young adulthood and beyond.
It can be hard to build and expand a ministry when not everyone agrees on what that ministry should look like.
But the decision between local and national events is only one of the tough choices made by youth and young adult ministers. Funding and other support for programs often is largely dependent on whether the pastor or bishop sees youth and young adult ministry as a priority. And it can be hard to build and expand a ministry when not everyone agrees on what that ministry should look like.
“For some bishops, youth ministry is just pro-life ministry. For some, it is not a priority at all,” Mr. Tooke told me, as we chatted between sessions. Other participants echoed this sentiment. That evening I observed a conversation in which one attendee was raving to another about how much he appreciated the support his bishop gave him, how the bishop had an open door policy if the minister ever needed to chat about practicalities or talk vision. His conversation partner looked down at his shoes and grumbled. It was clear he had not had the same experience.
A Changing Church
Christina Lamas, 38, understands what it is like to come up against skepticism or resistance when working in youth ministry—a feeling not limited to members of the episcopacy. “There’s a fear of the unknown. People are intimidated by not knowing what to give a young person,” she tells me.
Ms. Lamas embraced the unknown and trusted in what she felt was God’s will when she moved across the country from Los Angeles to Washington to take on the role of executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. As a Latina with more than 20 years’ experience working in youth ministry at both the parish and diocesan level, she brings with her a vision rooted in where the church is heading, both demographically and pastorally. As the American church creeps toward a majority-Hispanic population, the young church is already there. Sixty percent of Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic.
And yet according to a 2014 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, only 26 percent of responding dioceses had a director of youth ministry for Hispanic Catholics.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and director of the V Encuentro, thinks the church has failed thus far to minister to this group of “perceived minorities.” “Second- and third-generation Latinos have been left behind,” on a national level, he says. He blames this on the traditional youth group model. Parishes, perhaps out of good will, often integrate Latino youth into the existing youth groups without providing any ministry that is designed for immigrant communities. “There is an openness to working with immigrants, but not with cultural-specific ministries,” he says. The church in the United States must be careful that, as it seeks to evangelize new populations, it does not ignore the one right in front of it.
Growing With the Faith
For Catholic youth ministers in the United States, there are more resources and national structures than those who are unfamiliar with the terrain might realize. There are a number of widely attended national events and organizations to connect and train youth ministers from around the country, not to mention a healthy market for resources and curricula. That is not necessarily the case for ministry specific to young adults, geared toward people ages 18 to 35.
Large archdioceses like New York, Washington, Chicago and Denver have had some success in reaching out to this population, often by empowering the young adults themselves to lead. Yet across the country, there is still no broader consensus on what specifically is working and how to replicate it. “It’s the Wild West. Everyone is trying to figure it out because no one really knows what they’re doing,” Paul Sifuentes, associate director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana, told me over dinner at the conference for diocesan directors of youth ministry. Cecilia Phan, the coordinator of young adult ministry for the Diocese of Orange in California, replied saying this was a shame, because “so many young adults don’t know what they’re doing in their life!”
Despite some positive examples to point to, the statistical reality remains stark. According to a study from St. Mary’s Press and CARA to be published in January, among those Catholics who choose to leave the church, 74 percent do so between the ages of 10 and 20. And 87 percent of them say that it is for good. As youth face the transition to young adulthood, long-term connection is needed.
As youth face the transition to young adulthood, long-term connection is needed.
The Diocese of Bridgeport is one diocese trying to make those connections. The diocesan website sends a clear message about its priorities, including “Youth/Young Adults” among the main tabs on its menu.
“Youth and young adult ministry really is his passion,” Evan Psencik said of his boss, Bishop Caggiano. Mr. Psencik is the coordinator of youth and young adult ministries for the diocese. He says it makes a difference throughout the diocese to have that kind of support and energy coming from the bishop. “As a pastor in a diocese, when you see that there is something that your bishop is very passionate about, then you as a pastor feel like you need to be there,” Mr. Psencik said.
The support has also given him the freedom to experiment with new programs. One example is a retreat he hosted for high school seniors along with recent high school graduates who are now in college. Some young adults in the diocese came up with the idea, hoping the retreat would provide an opportunity for teens to discuss and pray about the transition to college alongside those who have experienced it. “A lot of those kids who were in youth ministry, they go off to college and they come back and they’re still trying to hang on to that youth group because they don’t know where to go,” Mr. Psencik said.
At 29, Mr. Psencik has enough experience in the youth and young adult ministry world to observe some changes. “In the late 90’s-early 2000’s, [when Psencik himself was a teen involved in youth ministry] there was this shift, that was like ‘Oh let’s take young people and let’s do youth ministry over here, and let’s do teen Masses and really take young people out of that and put them over here’,” setting them apart from the rest of the parish environment.
This movement to keep young people separate was not confined to Catholic youth ministry. Fuller Youth Institute, an institute in California that trains and provides resources for youth ministers across denominations, refers to this as the “kids’ table” model of youth ministry.
“We put all of the young people at ‘the kids’ table’ and then, when they got out of high school, they went to a church that was not the kids’ table and they didn’t feel a part of it because we never really showed them how to be a part of the bigger church,” Mr. Psencik said.
The negative effects of this model become clear in transition moments, whether from high school to college or the workforce, or from college to the workforce.
“Sometimes [a young person will] get to a college and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m really excited. I was in youth ministry, I went to my Steubenville conference, and I’m excited,’ and they might get to their university and it’s not a Catholic university,” Mr. Psencik said, describing a typical journey for someone who struggles with a transition out of youth ministry. “Or they show up to the Newman Center and they go, ‘Oh, it’s just all the weird Catholics who can’t find dates, so I’m not coming back here.’”
A Time for Change
Julie Lai, a senior at the University of San Diego, is looking ahead to her transition out of the college faith experience. She is involved in the campus ministry there, and she is also active in young adult programming in local parishes. She feels that youth and campus ministry thus far have given her a “confident and mature” faith. She is considering participating in a faith-based service program after graduation. Ultimately, she would like to work in social media for the church in some way.
Even with Ms. Lai’s experience and intention to stay involved, looking toward a faith life after college can be daunting.
“I am concerned transitioning out of college because I fear a lack of dynamic Catholic community,” she said. “There aren't many dioceses which do young adult ministry well.”
Bishop Caggiano agrees that the church needs to do more to integrate youth and young adults into parish life. “There isn’t enough effort [in the church] to connect all of these dots, so that we are all working together to create a continuum that allows a person to meander through transition, and not get lost in the cracks,” the bishop told me. “I think as a church, we’re beginning to recognize that.”
For young adults it can feel really daunting if someone doesn’t literally introduce themselves and literally welcome them to the Mass.
Esteem is one program that helps to emphasize just how big the Catholic community can be. It is a national effort present at nine universities in the United States and designed to help young adults transition from the comfort of Catholicism on campus to the realities of parish life. It can be particularly helpful for individuals who do not live in cities with vibrant young adult programs. Esteem strives to give college seniors the tools and the space to have a conversation about faith and the awareness to go out into the world after graduation and find a parish that they want to be a part of. Participants take part in a mentorship program, in which young adults are paired with a “real-life” adult Catholic. There is also a curriculum that empowers students to identify what they value in a parish or in a liturgy, so that they are able to find a parish that fills their needs.
Megan Colford, an alumna of the program, worked for Apple after graduation before taking the reins of Esteem as national director. She identified a number of issues that a young adult could encounter when they transition out of college and into the working world.
“I know one of the biggest things that [young adults] struggle with is that they’ve been going to Masses where their friends are, where there’s hot chocolate afterward; there’s great music and great preaching directed at them,” Ms. Colford said. “And then the only parish that they see, if they go to the neighborhood parish, doesn’t have that same vibrancy or isn’t as youth-oriented. I think people really get disheartened by feeling like they lose the fun or the connection of going to Mass.”
Another issue is simply recognition, the feeling of not being known. Young adults come from an environment where their friends and their campus ministers know them by name and know them well. “You can think you’re as welcoming as can be, but for young adults it can feel really daunting if someone doesn’t literally introduce themselves and literally welcome them to the Mass,” Ms. Colford said.
A Model Parish?
A difficult fact to reckon with is that the parish model itself is less appealing to young people, who are unlikely to be connected to a single parish. The Archdiocese of Chicago is among those places trying to find a solution.
For young adults, “the parish shouldn’t be the starting point for ministry—it should be the end point,” the Rev. Peter Wojcik, 36, director of the Office for Parish Vitality in the archdiocese, told me. “We’re working to create as many starting points as possible.”
One of those starting points is the archdiocese’s Theology on Tap events, which were founded in Chicago more than 35 years ago. These events, which typically include a guest speaker, drinks and appetizers, have become a popular model for young adult events around the country. The archdiocese recently asked parishes to collaborate in organizing these events regionally, so that the efforts and expenses are shared and the events are not competing with one another. It is a model that has brought some success. The kickoff of the new format, which featured America’s national correspondent, Michael O’Loughlin, and Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., of Salt and Light TV, was held in a downtown bar and drew over 600 people, the highest turnout in over five years.
The archdiocese hopes to direct young adults toward faith formation and service opportunities. It has launched a Scripture study program that has more than 200 young adult participants throughout the city, and will soon launch an app that will offer a listing of all service-oriented events around the city in one place.
The Archdiocese of Washington has also found success in transitioning away from a parish focus toward a regional one. Jonathan Lewis, 31, the director of young adult ministry and evangelization initiatives for the archdiocese, learned some useful lessons from his own experience of being a young Catholic in a state of flux. At one point in his life, Mr. Lewis moved four times in five years and was often traveling three hours one-way to see his girlfriend, the woman who would become his wife.
“Does my transience in that stage of life preclude me from fuller responsibility in the church?” Mr. Lewis asked. He believes the answer is no, but also believes that most parishes are not set up in a way that easily accommodates people in this stage and state of life. “Our parishes are built for stability,” Mr. Lewis said. “They’re built for people who have mortgages, who have kids and school schedules, who know where they’re going to be.... If they move, they move in the same neighborhood.”
To combat this, Mr. Lewis says the archdiocese is engaging in what he calls an “ecclesiology of locking arms.” The archdiocese has set up six regional ministries across the D.C. area. Mr. Lewis says this has helped parishes to support one another by sharing volunteers, resources and programs and to survive transitions. The benefits of this model can be difficult for parishes to understand at first. It can be a challenge, he said, convincing parishes to “give up a little bit of visibility in their own parish, to think bigger, in a more regional, universal, sense of the universal church.”
It is clear that these new ways of thinking about evangelization are needed. According to a 2016 study from the Public Religion Research Institute, since the early 1970s, the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a 10 percent net loss of people who identify as Catholic (the next lowest was mainline Protestants, with a 4.5 percent loss). This emphasizes the urgency of the situation and the need to find some answers for the many questions left to explore—how to redouble efforts directed at young adults who have left while also focusing on better formation for the next generation; how to find sustainable parish-based models for engagement; how to provide culturally sensitive ministry in a growing church. Yet in the midst of uncertainty, the church has many laborers, of many ages and backgrounds, in the vineyard, who are willing to take on the necessary risks of evangelization.
The church has many laborers, of many ages and backgrounds, in the vineyard, who are willing to take on the necessary risks of evangelization.
“It’s easy to point fingers: parish, parents, society,” Ms. Lamas told me, but she said she refuses to despair over the situation. “God is working in the midst of all of that. I hope there’s a new desire to do things differently for young Catholics,” she said.
Bishop Caggiano agrees. “I think this is the moment the Lord has given us,” he said.
“It does feel like a kairos moment,” I replied.
“Absolutely,” he said, “And if we get this right, there will be generations after us who look back and say, we have been able to build what we built because they had the courage to ask the right questions.”
For Mr. Lewis, the story of Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus serves as a good foundation for the conversation to come. “Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus for seven miles. But it was away from Jerusalem, so he walked the wrong direction for seven miles...just to be with them, and to draw near to them,” he said. “Are we willing to leave our churches to walk away in the ‘wrong direction,’ so that we can encounter people and walk with them in that journey, so that inspired by that encounter with the Lord, they return with a heart burning within them?”