April 14, 2023

The challenge to connect young adults and parishes is high, so is the hope

By John Shaughnessy

The statistics are both hopeful and sobering about young adult Catholics, based upon a study called, “Faith and Spiritual Life of Catholics in the United States.”

A measure of good news is that, “Overall, 60% of Catholic young adults, ages 18 to 35, in the United States indicated that they participate in a faith-related group,” noted the 2021 study that was done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) based at Georgetown University in Washington.

The sobering news is that attending Mass and being part of a parish aren’t usually part of the faith lives of young adult Catholics, according to the study of 2,214 Catholics in the 18-35 age group.

Conducted in the summer of 2020, the study led to these statistics: 13% of Catholic young adults attended Mass at least once a week while 21% attended Mass at least once a month, 31% attended Mass a few times a year and 36% rarely or never attended Mass.

“The biggest surprise is how boldly young adult Catholics are participating in their faith life outside the parish,” said Mark Gray, one of the co-authors of the study, told Catholic News Service in 2021.

“Most research and commentary outside of data collection is that young adults are so inactive. In one way, that’s right. They’re disconnected from their parish … but they’re finding ways to practice [their faith] in groups.”

Against that backdrop, the Young Adult Initiative at Saint Meinrad’s Center for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad has been working with select parishes across the Midwest and the South with the goal to help parishes across the country engage, welcome and embrace young adults into their faith community.

‘A lot of energy’ and questions

The first phase of that effort has been completed, leading to a 180-page report from the Young Adult Initiative. As the director of the initiative, 29-year-old Cassie Schutzer summed up what she considers some of the main insights about young adults from that report.

“There are so many good insights, but I think it’s best summed up in the fact that young adult ministry is not a one-size-fits-all program, but instead it’s about consistent and patient relationship-building.

“It will take some measure of patience on our part to listen to the stories of young people, to build these relationships, but we have seen the fruit that comes from investing in young people in this way.”

(Related story: Leader of effort to connect young adults and parishes finds hope in encounters with Christ)

The second phase of the initiative—which began in 2022—is a five-year effort that is being funded by a $1.25 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Schutzer says the major goals for this phase include helping the parishes in the initiative to “create a sustainable, long-term young adult ministry in their parishes” that focuses on outreach, accompaniment and discipleship.

Another main goal, she says, involves forming “our future priests for ministering with young adults and for leading young-adult-friendly parishes.”

Her hope is then to share the successful approaches with parishes across the country through a guide and other resources.

In the beginning stages of the second phase, Schutzer has seen some of the realities mentioned in “Faith and Spiritual Life of Catholics in the United States.”

“With young adult Catholics, we’re seeing a lot of young people who are really interested in exploring their faith for the first time or re-exploring the faith they grew up with. But they don’t feel they got a whole lot of catechesis in it or whatever the case may be.

“So, there’s a lot of energy around it. But as far as the questions and the exploration, a lot of that is happening outside the parish buildings. It’s happening in homes or more community spaces—coffee shops, places like that. I think if our parishes were able to have these conversations with young people and provide those spaces where they feel they belong in the parish, I think it could really revitalize a lot of our aging parishes.”

Reasons for hope

Despite the challenges. Schutzer views bridging that gap between young adults and parishes with hope.

She gets that hope from the enthusiasm and commitment of the leaders of the 10 parishes involved in the initiative. She also gets that hope from young adult Catholics who she believes are searching for purpose and meaning in their lives, searching for God.

“They don’t yet see that they can find it in our parishes. Some of what we need to be doing is helping young people connect to community, and it’s also helping the community to be ready for them, to welcome them and accept them.

“There’s not one program that’s going to do all this, but there are definitely themes we see. Having young people be leaders. Giving them opportunities. Mentoring them. Helping them feel like they belong in parishes. Personal invitations. Personal relationships. These are common themes we see.”

This second phase of the initiative is planned as a five-year effort, reflecting the “patience and persistence” that Schutzer believes is needed to bridge the gap between young adult Catholics and parishes.

She believes the effort is worthwhile because so is its ultimate goal.

“It’s everyone growing together with the goal in mind of growing toward the Lord and growing more faithful as his disciples.”

(For anyone interested in accessing the 180-page report on the first phase of Saint Meinrad’s Young Adult Initiative, visit the website, www.saintmeinradyai.org/phase-1-report. A copy of the report can be downloaded for free. A hard copy of the report can be ordered online and is available for $8—the cost of shipping it.)

Local site Links: