by David Kamba
On a mild July evening, about two hundred young adults
gather to hear a speaker in the plaza of an Italian Renaissance
church. Sound like a 17th-century setting from Butler’s
Lives of the Saints? It’s not. It’s the first summer
of the new millennium at St. Clement Church in Chicago,
where young-adult ministry has seen a rebirth during the
last quarter of the century.
This, however, might not be the case in other parts of
the country. The percentage of people in the United States
who say they are Catholic has remained the same for three
decades, but fewer Catholics say they are connected to the
Church, notes Tom W. Smith, the research associate who oversaw
the survey released by the University of Chicago’s National
Opinion Research Center (NORC).
In the early 1970s, 46 percent of Catholics identified
themselves as “strong” Catholics. In 1998, that population
dropped to 37 percent. In the 1970s, 48 percent said they
went to church once a week; in 1998, 29 percent reported
they went to church weekly.
This decline can be partially attributed to the disconnectedness
that today’s young adults feel. But hope is not lost. In
a paper delivered at a conference at the University of California
at Santa Barbara, Father Andrew Greeley, also a research
associate at NORC, stated, “The media maniacs who periodically
proclaim that there is a decline or a revival of religion,
secularization and resacralization...simply have not looked
at the data....The ‘Me Generation’ and ‘Generation X’ are,
if anything, more religious than the ‘Boomers.’”
The noted sociologist and novelist went on to say, “Volunteerism
has increased between the 1980s and ’90s. Those most likely
to volunteer and those where the increase is the highest
are the three youngest age cohorts: the ‘Boomers,’ the ‘Me
Generation’ and—highest of all—the frequently denounced
So how can the Catholic Church reconnect with adults aged
20 through 40? The Archdiocese of Chicago can serve as an
example. In Chicago, singles groups are a thing of the past.
Instead, young-adult ministries are appealing to both Catholics
and those who are not Catholic but feel drawn to the Church.
Three parishes in particular stand out: St. Clement, Old
St. Patrick and St. Michael.
St. Clement: An Experience of Community
Every July St. Clement, located in the heart of Chicago’s
Lincoln Park, sponsors a speakers’ series called Theology
on Tap. For 20 years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has
offered dynamic speakers through this series. On one particular
evening, young adults, aged 20 to 40, met to hear a local
radio disc jockey and fellow parishioner talk about religious
images in rock music videos. Sixty-three parishes in three
dioceses took part in the summer of 2000, the 20th anniversary
of the series’ inception.
Over the years, Theology on Tap has grown in popularity.
At St. Clement alone, the number has almost tripled in the
last four years. In 1996, 232 individuals attended the presentations
at St. Clement. In 1998 that number increased to 407, and
only one year later 600 people attended. These numbers are
only one sign of St. Clement’s success. Its small faith
groups began with 35 participants in 1996, and now count
100 in their ranks.
Last spring, the parish welcomed almost 50 catechumens
into the Church. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s.
This number captured the attention of Cardinal Francis George,
who later sent a German bishop to the parish to learn more
about ministering to young adults.
What makes this young-adult group successful? Kevin Sandberg,
coordinator of the young-adult community from 1996 to 1999,
realized that the young adults in the parish were looking
for an experience of community more than anything else.
“It’s not a group as much as it is an experience,” Sandberg
says. “We took the place of a singles group that floundered.
“In my life, to go to a singles group was the kiss of death,”
says Sandberg, who had been a parishioner for two years
before his roommates prompted him to go to the group meetings.
“I thought, ‘In a singles group, people are trying to become
unsingle. Once they are unsingle, then it dissolves.’
“St. Clement is trying to remove the stigma of being a
group of people who failed at trying to become married,”
Sandberg says. Parish leaders took a very sophisticated
approach. By conducting informal focus groups and employing
the basic principles of marketing, such as advertising,
flyers, posters, reminder postcards, the parish bulletin
and banners in the church plaza, they revived St. Clement’s
The parish offers three “entry points,” as Sandberg calls
them: social gatherings, programs for faith enrichment and
volunteer opportunities. “We took away barriers: membership
dues and monthly meetings,” he says. They also used different
language to define themselves; for instance, they worked
in teams instead of committees and the work focused around
Sandberg says that other archioceses, including Boston,
Detroit and Washington, D.C., have notified their young-adult
ministries of the Chicago model. “To relaunch this ministry
takes great support from the pastor,” Sandberg says. In
outlining a plan for parish renewal, he emphasized a community-based
effort. “Relationships are key; knowing names and faces
and offering personal invitations. Identify extroverted
young adults who are leaders,” he says.
“Second, make programs pastorally-based, a sharing of the
spirit. Third, make them team-centered and train leaders
in collecting impressions on what the young adults want
and how they perceived events. Fourth, provide multiple
entry points. Make different activities available in order
to appeal to different people. Finally, lead people spiritually,”
“We all are in need of transformation in our lives. Faith
is a transformed life. We have to lead people to that spiritual
realization,” he says. “Success is measured through transformation
in people’s lives. The experience of community that the
laity can create for one another is the way of the future
in the Church, and that experience has to be transforming
in people’s lives, so they can transform the world with
their own lives.”
Mary Ellen Johnston, a 30-something public relations specialist
and a member of the parish council, agrees. “I’ve become
more aware of my faith and how I can incorporate it into
my daily life, trying to live the gospel,” she says.
She also believes that parishes need active and energetic
parishioners. “I think laypeople need to step up and contribute
more to programs that were once run by priests and staff
Old St. Patrick: A Rebirth
In 1983, St. Patrick’s parish membership totaled four families.
Today it draws thousands every weekend with 90 percent of
the parishioners commuting from as far away as Indiana.
Although the parish sits west of downtown in an industrial
region, it is still a vital part of the archdiocese and
of the city.
It hosts noteworthy events ranging from discussions with
Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold about campaign-finance
reform to an annual block party that attracts internationally
renowned rock bands and many of Chicago’s singles. In fact,
St. Patrick’s is so well known that a recent Chicago
magazine cover story cited its young-adult Mass as a good
place to meet a soulmate.
Father John Cusick, one of the two priests who are responsible
for the parish’s rebirth, probably cringed when he saw the
article. Father Cusick, director of Young Adult Ministries
for the Archdiocese of Chicago, has been influential in
the shift in ideology from focusing on singles groups to
ministering to young adults as individuals.
Old St. Pat’s approach to young-adult ministry is one that’s
admired worldwide. The parish has received requests for
advice from Europe, Asia and Australia. Currently, Father
Cusick is talking with a publisher about writing a book
about young-adult ministry.
“There’s a whole generation not in our pews,” says Kate
DeVries, associate director of Young Adult Ministries. “They’re
just not connecting on a regular basis. Catholics never
lose that affiliation. They will defend the Church until
they die, but many haven’t been to church in years. What
we’ve done in the Archdiocese of Chicago is make a program
for people both married and single.” It can become an unhealthy
situation when unmarried people are singled out, she says.
“We’re trying to get rid of dating urgency and come together
to praise God.”
Volunteer and financial support for a parish is usually
tied to what Cusick calls “the marriage question.” With
young adults marrying at older ages, more and more of them
are staying away from church for a longer period of time
than they traditionally did in the past. Cusick believes
that many parishes need to make a concerted effort to reach
the 25-40 age group.
Concurrently, young adults need the Church for both spiritual
and social reasons. “It’s a more anonymous culture than
it ever was before,” Cusick says. “There seems to be a lot
of fear. People are more guarded.” Having safe places to
build relationships is very important in people’s lives.
He has also noticed an increase in spiritual awareness.
“It’s much more of a spiritual age now than it was 15 years
ago. There’s a real need or hunger to find good people in
life.” When Cusick and DeVries serve as consultants for
parishes, they emphasize listening to the people.
“Good Church is built on listening to people,” Cusick says.
“Once you know people, you can shape, form and package a
program.” Cusick and DeVries provide resources for 374 parishes,
teach parish leaders, train volunteers and organize large
archdiocesan events for young adults.
“The pluralism in our culture must be respected and not
just another obvious pluralism of color and language. Every
community has different peoples. Listen and try to find
out what people are looking for in their lives,” Cusick
says. “A classic Church problem is that we put people in
little pens and throw them off to the side. People are looking
for connectedness, feeling a part of something, feeling
welcome, particularly on Sunday.”
DeVries says the connectedness that she has observed among
people who share themselves in retreats, prayer groups and
small faith groups is the most rewarding aspect of her job.
“People come to us at very sacred, tender times in their
lives. How we treat them at those moments of return is very
She points out that the spirituality of married people
is no different than that of single people. “The way they
live their lives and pay their taxes is different but not
their spiritual lives.”
To stimulate young-adult ministries in parishes, DeVries
and Cusick sit with staff members and ask them to list the
young adults in the parish. They then encourage the pastor
to host an event. To plan the event, they listen, brainstorm
and discuss key questions. “What can a faith community do?
What can you as talented children of God do for the Church?
What can you come to expect from your Church?” DeVries asks.
“Almost everything we do is generated by ideas that people
in the parishes have.” Young adults are asking more about
the catechism and Church teachings, she says. To implement
some of the generated ideas, Cusick and DeVries provide
leadership training sessions. “People are willing to share
St. Michael: Something for Their Daily Lives
Since 1984, St. Michael’s 7 p.m. Sunday Mass regularly
attracts about 400 young adults, including Chicago celebrities,
such as one-time Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh
and the late comedian Chris Farley. Tourists comment on
the youthful congregation. They often leave feeling energized.
Father Kern Sedlak, C.SS.R., rector of St. Michael, has
been observing this magic for 10 years.
A couple miles north of downtown, St. Michael is situated
in an ever-changing neighborhood. Once known as a German
enclave, Old Town declined during the 1970s when crime rose
and families moved away. “It was almost dead,” Sedlak says.
“We were going to build a glass structure in the middle
of the church that would hold 250 people. Then, all we had
to do was heat and air-condition the glass chapel.” But
then a miracle happened. With the parish as an anchor, the
neighborhood became rejuvenated. “Older people kept the
place going. They were very welcoming and made room for
As real-estate developers reclaimed the area, more young
people moved in and St. Michael’s population thrived. The
parish’s popularity spread by word of mouth, and the priests
gave the young people an opportunity to choose the time
for their own Mass. Sedlak says he believes they chose 7
p.m. on Sunday because it reminds them of their college
days. “It’s like home to them.”
Sedlak estimates that today 85 percent of the parishioners
are between the ages of 25 and 40. Most of them are college
graduates, and they grew up in all parts of the United States.
Because most of the parishioners are young adults, Sedlak
can tailor his homilies for them. “They’re looking to connect
faith to their daily lived experience. As well-educated
and -trained as they are, they don’t have intellectual theology.
They want something that will help them with their daily
Sedlak has noticed that some parishioners will get together
after Mass to eat dinner, have a beer and talk about the
sermon. “Liturgy is essential. Liturgy is what drives the
whole thing. People are looking for a place where they are
He also has observed another trend. “In the last six years,
I’ve noticed not as many people who are angry with the Church.
They are more settled in their faith.” He says there’s less
concern about dating and more seriousness about faith. “There’s
a strong desire to understand faith, grow and develop.”
In fact, St. Michael’s RCIA program attracts an average
of 28 young people per year.
Ironically, the church, which boasts 2,200 registered households,
loses half its members to job transfers and suburban migration
each year. But an equal number annually joins the parish.
The young-adult population is transitional, says Sedlak,
so he focuses on creating spiritual and social activities.
These activities are built around developing a sense of
community, and the character of the activities depends upon
leadership at the time. Every two or three months, new leaders
Sedlak’s advice for being young-adult friendly is to treat
young adults as equals and with enormous respect. He suggests
training young people in the practical and spiritual dimensions
of liturgical roles. “Be flexible, let leaders arise and
encourage people to use their talents,” he says. “Many young
people are career-focused and spend a lot of time on the
road, so it is important to allow them space in activities.
Let them work on projects instead of ongoing committees.”
A Church That's Home
Young adults might go out of town on business trips or
to visit family, but the parishioners of St. Clement, Old
St. Patrick and St. Michael always come home. Jessica Nelson,
a 25-year-old journalist who recently moved to Chicago from
the East Coast, applauds the trend toward uniting all young
Catholic adults. She values a mix of spiritual and social
“As I’m getting older, I look more toward the spiritual
side of life. The Catholic faith is very comforting to me,”
says the newly-married Nelson. “I would be sad if we would
be cut off from young adults because we’re married.”
“The Chicago model is one example for revitalizing the
young adults in a parish,” Sedlak adds. “They made a choice
to come to church. These people are really listening. Faith
is caught from other people. Here, it’s part of the way
everything is done. It suffuses the spirit of the place.”
Theresa Carson graduated from Marquette University in
Milwaukee with a B.A. in journalism and from DePaul University
in Chicago with an M.A. in history. She served as director
of public relations at Catholic Extension and associate
editor of Liguorian. Ms. Carson has been published
in various Catholic publications and has written mini-guides
for MacMillan’s Online Idiots Guide. Currently residing
in Chicago, she is an editor for three alumni magazines
for DePaul, which is the largest Catholic university in
the country, with 21,000 students.