“Outreach and ministry to the young church is going through a time of rediscovery and redefinition,” says Tammy Becht, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind.
“Every parish in the country wants to do better engagement with young adults,” adds Michal Horace, who directs the Young Adult Initiative (YAI) at Saint Meinrad. “But they don’t know what they want to do, so it goes to the back burner, or there is risk involved so they don’t try.”
That desire to better engage young adults has led 16 parishes representing five states and 13 dioceses to participate in YAI. Funded by a $1.38 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. (LEI), the Saint Meinrad initiative is in the beginning stages of helping these parishes learn more about their community demographics and the young adults in their midst, as well as develop strategies to better serve those young adults.
Saint Meinrad is one of 12 innovation hubs around the country to receive a grant through LEI’s Young Adult Initiative, a five-year program to help congregations find new ways to engage young adults ages 23–29. Becht applied for the grant and hired Horace for his role in June 2017.
Becht also directs Saint Meinrad’s “One Bread, One Cup” program, which conducts liturgical leadership conferences each summer for high school youth and their adult leaders. The program also was funded by grants from LEI, until 2015, but is now sustained by Saint Meinrad.
Becht and Horace were interviewed recently by the Saint Mary’s Press Catholic Research Group.
For the past year, parishes in YAI have been engaged in parish self-study, learning about the young people in their neighborhood, and sharing and discussing some of the existing research around the issue of young adults and church.
“Parishes focus on dialogue and listening with young adults,” said Horace. “Young adults are gathered, broken up into small groups, and have the opportunity to share their lives, their story, and how the church does or doesn’t fit into their lives.” The emphasis is “listening to listen, and not listening to correct, catechize or evangelize. It’s sacred listening—to young adults and their stories, their needs. Then we are in a much better position to discern how we want to respond to these needs. This listening and dialogue is exactly what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do with youth and young adults.”
The emphasis is “listening to listen, and not listening to correct, catechize or evangelize. It’s sacred listening—to young adults and their stories, their needs.”
“You need to meet [young adults] where they are. Jesus went out to where the people are. A change of thinking is needed.”
Saint Meinrad has been working with participating parishes to help them create a specific plan to engage young adults—not only those in their pews, but in the neighborhood at large. Through outreach into the local community, and hosting events that include prayer, worship, and fellowship, the program seeks to help parish congregations to form young adults in discipleship by creating service and study opportunities.
“We’re always trying to find balance: how much we directly partner with parishes and how much autonomy they have to do it their way. We provide a framework and guidance; how they respond, how they strategize to meet objectives is up to them,” said Horace.
Another YAI focus will be to assist parishes in mentoring young adults in the rituals of daily life in the domestic church (the church of the home). “The aim is to help young adults to form a sense of community and Catholic identity in their homes, eventually leading them back to a parish congregation,” said Horace.
“It’s the sort of mentoring that in the past might have come from grandparents and great-grandparents and how they would transmit the faith,” he said. “I think (YAI) will come up with new ideas, but a big part will be rediscovering” traditions, rituals, and prayers that have fallen into disuse, he added.
Parish findings through YAI “will be very open-sourced,” said Horace. “We’re working on a website that will list what parishes have tried, outcomes, learnings, and so on, hoping this will be a jump starter for parishes looking for strategies, ideas, efforts [they] might be engaged in.”
“We can’t expect young adults to simply come back” to the institutional church, Becht said. “You need to meet them where they are. Jesus went out to where the people are. A change of thinking is needed. Parishes need to develop a strategy of connection. It’s not what’s wrong with the kids these days, but what are we doing and not doing in order to make them feel they are part of the parish community?”
Said Horace: “You would think [the 12 innovation hubs funded by the LEI grants] would be doing the same things, but it amazes me how unique and different each organization’s approach has been. Some are much more academic, some academic and research, others like us have a much more pastoral approach. Lilly really emphasized innovation, innovation, innovation. We keep pushing with our parishes, be innovative and be different.”
“Some days I think we will really make a big dent in how we engage and minister to young adults in this country,” Horace said. “Other days just a few young adults. Either way, it’s very rewarding.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research