April 14, 2023

‘To be known, to be loved’

Leader of effort to connect young adults and parishes finds hope in encounters with Christ

(Photo illustration by Brandon A. Evans)

As the director of the Young Adult Initiative program of Saint Meinrad’s Center for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization, 29-year-old Cassie Schutzer leads an effort that hopes to create bridges between young adults and parishes across the country. (Photo courtesy of Sain Meinrad Archabbey)

By John Shaughnessy

Cassie Schutzer smiles when she thinks about the unexpected changes that happened in the lives of the four young adults.

All four were part of the Young Adult Initiative program that the 29-year-old Schutzer had planned on the grounds of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad—a weekend gathering in which young adults from across the Midwest and the South came together to learn better ways of connecting young adults to their parishes.

(Related story: The challenge to connect young adults and parishes is high, so is the hope)

Schutzer had arranged a weekend filled with activities, community prayer and small-group interactions. Yet, she believes God had more personal plans for the four individuals who were a part of the larger group last November.

By the end of the weekend, a young man and a young woman became engaged to each other. Another young man said that weekend was the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And a third young man felt drawn to consider a religious vocation.

“These moments were a confirmation that the weekend achieved what we were hoping for—creating a space for encounter with the Lord and one another,” says Schutzer, the director of the Young Adult Initiative, a program of Saint Meinrad’s Center for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization.

“Sometimes we spin our wheels trying to plan perfect events, but when we keep the Lord at the center and simply focus on knowing, loving and serving him as a community, he will show up and work in our lives.”

‘Young adults are looking for the same things that anyone hungers for’

Schutzer has no doubt that God will be in the midst of the next semi-annual gathering of the Young Adult Initiative, which will be at Saint Meinrad on April 28-30. She also believes that, while young adults have overwhelmingly strayed from organized religion of all faiths and denominations, the blessings of a life in relationship with God are exactly what this 18- to 39-year-old age group is longing for in their lives.

“I think young adults are looking for the same things that anyone hungers for—to be known and to be loved,” Schutzer says. “Young adults are looking for meaningful relationships, to be a part of a community where they are valued, to make a difference in the world, and to have space where they can wrestle with important questions and issues in their life without being unfairly or prematurely judged.

“At the core, they’re really searching for God. They’re searching for meaning and purpose.”

Helping young adults create a meaningful relationship with God and living it within the community of a Catholic parish are two of the main goals of the Young Adult Initiative—a program whose second phase is being funded through a $1.25 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Schutzer notes that the first phase of the initiative determined that the best way to draw young adults into a connection with God and a parish is through “consistent and patient relationship-building.”

“Young adults are all over the spectrum as far as their state in life, their knowledge of the faith, their expression of faith,” she says. “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.

“We are participating in the Lord’s work of conversion and making disciples, not just planning events and looking to increase the number of people who attend.”

The second phase of the initiative will last five years and involves 10 parishes in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. Its primary goals will include helping the parishes in the program to develop long-term ministry that’s focused on outreach, accompaniment and discipleship of young adults—and then sharing what works best with parishes in their dioceses and across the country. No archdiocesan parish is a part of this phase.

“My hope is that our partner parishes will have thriving, lasting, young-adult ministry in their parishes at the end of phase two,” Schutzer says. “My other hope is that Saint Meinrad can be a place that accompanies the wider U.S. Catholic Church in walking with young adults on their faith journey.”

Schutzer views her own faith journey as reflecting that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping young adults find their way to a relationship with God and a connection with a parish.

At the same time, her experience shows just how life-changing a relationship with Christ can be for a young adult.

‘The Lord wanted to have a personal relationship with me’

Schutzer grew up in North Carolina, the oldest of four children of her Catholic mother and her Jewish father.

“All the kids were raised Catholic in our family,” she says. “We were definitely Sunday Mass, youth ministry, pray-before-meal Catholics, but I think it took me until after college [at the University of North Carolina] to discover that the Lord wanted to have a personal relationship with me.

“In college, I started attending the Newman Center to make friends and find a community. I felt a lot of imposter syndrome while at the Newman Center. I would look at the faith of my peers and wonder how they could be so far ahead of me. I started to imitate the faith that I saw, and along the way, I learned a lot about Catholicism and about different expressions of faith. But I think I made the ultimate decision to practice my faith about four years after college.”

That embrace of her Catholic faith didn’t come quickly for the 2015 graduate.

“I spent the years right after graduation—ironically enough—working for a Catholic parish, but not practicing my faith and not believing in much of anything outside of myself and my friend group. I hit a point where I felt hopeless and decided that things needed to change.

“This is the time in my life that I call my ‘reversion’ to faith because I really did start to explore Catholicism as if for the first time. I found a lot of support in my faith community, in my friendships, and in my growing relationship with the Lord.”

Schutzer finds comparisons to her faith journey in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son.

“Early in my life, I was the older son who took for granted the treasures of the Church that were always surrounding me. Then, later on, there were times when I was the rebellious younger son, running away from my father and my faith because I wanted to chase after other things in life that I deemed more important or exciting. The Lord always welcomed me home in these moments. Now, I am striving more and more to be like the father, but the two sons still live on in my heart.”

Like the young adults she is trying to help parishes connect with, Schutzer lives the same challenges of faith that her peers face. She shares their struggles. She also offers them a path to peace and harmony in their life—in a relationship with God.

She knows the journey isn’t always easy.

“Directing the Young Adult Initiative has reminded me how crucial it is to grow in my own relationship with the Lord,” she says. “I can talk all day long about how important it is to model our faith and to form relationships with young adults and to be a community of prayer, but if I’m not practicing these things and growing myself, I am nothing more than a clashing gong, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians.

“I am on that lifelong journey of conversion and conforming myself to the heart of the Father.” †

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