PHOTO BY CHRIS CONE
The youthful and lively
clientele look as if they
walked out of a Polo catalog
and into this festive
sports bar in Covington,
Kentucky: Pleated pants,
well-pressed shirts and trendy capris
adorn bodies as far as the eye can see.
The 20- and 30-something crowd is
neatly groomed, decidedly urban and
visibly excited to be here.
Beers—both domestic and imported—are consumed at an unhurried
pace. This is no rowdy, happy-hour
crowd: A steady flow of conversation
fills the air.
But the reason for this gathering is
not for football or the finale of a reality
television show. The young adults in
this standing-room-only speakeasy have
assembled for fellowship and faith.
As participants in the Theology-on-Tap program, serving the Diocese of
Covington and the Cincinnati area,
these young-adult Catholics have gathered
to delve deeper into their Catholic
faith and to find ways of maximizing
their role in today’s Church. This crowd
is cruising for hope, not hangovers.
St. Anthony Messenger conducted
phone interviews with organizers
Rachel Sacksteder and John Sparks of
Dayton, Ohio; Theresa Ruthman, a core
group leader in Covington, Kentucky;
and Chicago’s Father John Cusick, who
cofounded the program in 1981.
Each of them shares a common objective:
to celebrate faith, to find fellowship
in others and to explore the riches
of the Catholic tradition. No longer
satisfied with going through the
motions of Mass, many young Catholics
across the country gather to celebrate
and invigorate. Theology-on-Tap
quenches two thirsts at once.
A Growing Movement
Rachel Sacksteder, 34, craved community
when she moved back to her
hometown of Dayton, Ohio, after
spending more than two years working
at a Honduran orphanage. She found it
“It was a great way to meet other
people who would want to go deeper
into their faith,” she says. “That was a
big motivation for me. I wanted to find a community. I wanted people who
could help me get to heaven, outside of
Rachel is not alone. Thousands of
young Catholics have harbored a similar
wish. Dioceses in approximately
44 states offer the Theology-on-Tap
series for both married and single people.
Sessions can be weekly or monthly,
sometimes arranged into a series with
breaks in between.
And it’s spreading globally: Six other
countries—Canada, Italy (Rome), Taiwan,
the Philippines, Ireland and Hong
Kong—offer the series. The formula is
simple and effective. Each session tackles
a different topic and is usually spearheaded
by one or two speakers. A
question-and-answer session follows.
Topics vary. In Washington, D.C.,
one assembly covered “Anger Management:
Peace Through Forgiveness.” In
New York City they addressed intimacy
with “Sex and the City: The Truth About Men, Women and What God
Really Intended.” And in Colorado it
was “Who’s Your Daddy? Meeting My
Father John Cusick, a resident at Old
St. Patrick’s Parish near Chicago’s Loop
and director of Young Adult Ministry for
the archdiocese, cofounded the series
with Father Jack Wall in the summer of
1981 in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Originally designed to be a six-week
summer program for young-adult
Catholics, Theology-on-Tap grew rather
quickly. On the first night, 200 people
showed up at St. James Parish in Arlington
Heights. Six weeks later, there were
The following year, four additional
parishes were added to accommodate
the growing number of faith-hungry,
college-age Catholics. Cusick estimates
that somewhere between 130 and 150
parishes in Chicago have participated
in the program at some time.
He believes it is needed more now
than ever before.
“What gets me nervous is that every
generation appears to be more secular
than the same age group one generation
ahead of them. And that’s sort of
alarming,” he says. “Everybody keeps
saying, ‘The young adults are the future
of the Church.’ No, they’re not. They
are the present Church.”
Yet it’s common for Catholics in their
late teens to find their faith weakened.
Theology-on-Tap is a preventive measure.
“There are a lot of young people for
whom life is becoming very difficult,”
Cusick says. “What we’re trying to do
is offer people an adult appreciation
of the richness of the Catholic faith.”
But Cusick knows that Theology-on-Tap, although a critical evangelical
tool, cannot do it alone. He urges campus
ministers across the country to do
more outreach for their college-age
“I think campus ministers should
contact local parishes and say, ‘Bill and
Beth from St. Thomas Parish are coming
home for the summer. They were
very active down here. Don’t let them
fall through the cracks.’”
Cusick has sage words for young
Catholics who find they are drifting
from their faith. “Just stay on the reservation
because when you get older,
you’re going to need this stuff.”
Young adults must, in turn, have a desire
to stick close to the reservation,
but once they’re there, how do you
keep them? Cusick believes Catholics of
this age should mix it up a little. He suggests stopping in at a daily Mass for a
“It’s such a different experience,” he
says. “There is sacredness in a quiet,
big church with only a handful of people.
It’s like, “Ah, the Lord is present.’”
Cusick feels that spiritual exercises
are also vital. He credits the Internet as
a useful device for outreach, especially
with today’s Web-savvy Catholics. He
recommends www.sacredspace.ie, a
site that offers online meditations, and
Busted Halo (www.bustedhalo.com),
an online magazine for Catholics in
their 20s and 30s.
Another facet of his outreach is the
Chicago radio program he cohosts with
Kate DeVries every second Wednesday
of the month. Called The Light Show, it
tackles issues of faith and life for young
adults. Past shows can be accessed
through www.yamchicago.org and
downloaded to MP3 players and iPods.
Cusick, wise to today’s young
Catholics, feels that his skills in sales
and marketing are invaluable. He
remains diligent when working with
Catholics of this age demographic.
Many are suspicious, some even jaded.
“They’re hungry and they are the
ones not accepting everything at face
value,” he says. “Young-adult Catholics
ask me about everything; therefore, I
have to be an effective pastoral minister,
but I also have to be in marketing
“I think a secular language is what
Jesus was all about. He went from town
to town and the crowds followed. He
figured a way to do it so he marketed it
to people. He said, ‘Come and follow
me,’ and they followed.”
But reaching out to young-adult
Catholics certainly isn’t a job to Cusick.
It is his passion.
“Who else gets the opportunity to
stand on a nightly basis in the middle
of summer before anywhere from 15 to
150 young-adult Catholics and say,
‘Here, let me talk to you about the glories
of our faith?’ I was ordained to
do this. It is the love and passion of
And Cusick’s enthusiasm has been
widely noted. He is frequently invited
by groups around the country to speak
on matters of young-adult ministry.
Rachel Sacksteder: Coming Home
Rachel Sacksteder shares Cusick’s eagerness
for the Catholic faith. The Dayton,
Ohio, resident is an organizer and participant
of the Theology-on-Tap program
in her area. She is also one of its
Meeting others her age eased the
transition when she moved back home. “The idea of it sounded exciting,” she
says. “Here would be a great way to
meet other people who would want to
go deeper in their faith.”
The Theology-on-Tap series has given
Rachel an opportunity to reexamine
and delve deeper into her beliefs, which
have only strengthened since she
“It definitely has given me thought-provoking
ways of looking at my Catholic
faith. It’s answered my questions,”
Rachel asserts. “It’s such an interesting
exchange of people asking probing
questions and the priests’ responses
have been genuine and heartfelt and
very thoughtful. They’ve given me
some real insight and understanding.”
Speakers can be either laypeople or
clerics, and topics are usually selected
by the organizing committee. Rachel
appreciates that, with Theology-on-Tap, great truths are discussed and
“We believe there is a truth, we think
that it’s an appealing truth and we
think that people really want to hear it.
It’s a fun place to find people who are
But it didn’t end there. Encouraged
by the newfound friends she met
through the program, Rachel, who
works at a pregnancy resource center,
established a Christian Life Group on
the side with several other members.
This afforded her an even deeper, more
enriching analysis into her beliefs.
“We have been able to form relationships
and talk about our faith on a
more personal level, in a more intimate
setting,” she says.
“The bar is a fun way to get people
together but it’s an appetizer. At the
Christian Life Group, we learn things
about our faith and have a chance to
John Sparks: Faith Rediscovered
That quest for enlightenment is not
unprecedented. Many college-age
Catholics have spent their young lives
attending Sunday Mass but know little
of the Catholic tradition. John Sparks,
a 26-year-old engineer in Dayton, Ohio,
was just such a person. After moving to
the city, he saw an opportunity to learn
about his faith and meet people his age.
“I definitely considered myself a
good Catholic, but I didn’t really understand
a lot of the practices. It was the
gateway for me to understand things,”
“It is a good ministry, a good draw to
the Church and the teachings. In its
own unique way it can pull people who
are transients. It’s a friendly environment
where they can go and meet other
people their age.”
He values the series’ topics, which
differ from diocese to diocese and season
to season. He also appreciates how
the speakers approach the issues, which
are often controversial, from both a
spiritual and intellectual perspective.
“The topics are really interesting and
fascinating. I always go back and reflect
on it and think about how I need to
integrate this into my life. But it also
ties the social aspect in together, too.”
John feels that many Catholics in
their late teens sometimes lose their
religion when they leave home to
attend college. After that, many become
too career-focused, a fate John knows all
too well. Theology-on-Tap helped him refocus on faith, something he hopes is
imparted to other young Catholics.
“I hope it gets them to understand at
least why the Church has certain teachings
and why it is very important for a
life and our relationship with God,”
“Even though we have busy lives
and there are many other distractions
in the world, there is this Body of Christ
that they can be a part of.”
Theresa Ruthman: Giving Back
Theresa Ruthman, 32, has a quick
answer when asked why she feels
Theology-on-Tap works so well with
young-adult Catholics. “They get
answers,” she says.
“There is a contingent who are on
the fringe and don’t go to church regularly
and they’re searching for answers.
I think a lot of times it’s the personal
testimonies that meet them where
As a core team leader for Theology-on-Tap in the Diocese of Covington,
Theresa has a hand in planning topics
and arranging speakers. And like many
young Catholics, she endured a period
of innumerable questions. She brings
that sensibility to her planning.
“I’ve received so much from my faith
and I’ve been so fed that I feel like just
keeping it to myself would be really
selfish,” she says. “I know what it is to
wonder where the answers are, to be
thirsting for the truth.”
Theresa is grateful for the support
given to her by the diocese, which
sometimes offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation
at their Theology-on-Tap
series, an additional benefit which is
unique compared to the program across
But she’s insistent that, although
Theology-on-Tap is a useful map for
many who have lost their way, it is a
higher power that must be ultimately
credited for the directions.
“I really do believe the Holy Spirit
guides them to the Church and they
find it through prayer and through the
sacraments and through community
in the Church. Ultimately, where else
are they going to be fulfilled but in
Christ?” she asks.
But that doesn’t mean the road back
for many Catholics of this demographic
is a smooth one. Theresa feels the end
result is well worth the struggle.
“I think there are more and more
young adults who are searching for
that authenticity, searching for that
truth and fulfillment and they haven’t
found it in their jobs or in their relationships.”
Thirsty for More?
Although Theology-on-Tap is known
primarily for its barroom evangelization,
some meetings around the country
take place on church grounds, as is
the case with the Chicago Archdiocese.
But Father Cusick cares little for geography.
He has a greater interest in simply
getting the word out. According to
him, many young-adult Catholics are
more famished for faith than ever before.
“This is a much more spiritually hungry
generation today. Twenty-five years
ago, people couldn’t give a damn. They
were kids of the ’70s,” he says.
Cusick and the other dedicated men
and women around the country involved
in the program have their work
cut out for them. According to a survey
conducted in 2004 by the Center for
Applied Research in the Apostolate,
only 22 percent of college-age Catholics
attend weekly Mass. In fact, that’s not
much below the rate of the total U.S.
He suggests the younger generations
are growing up in a society that fosters
“People are growing up today in a
‘me-ism’ world—‘it’s all about me,’” he
says. “Well, it’s not just about you. It’s
about you, me and the Lord. How are
you going to build a better world if it’s
only about you?”
Even so, the energetic and excitable
priest is thrilled by the potential of
younger Catholics. “We would be a far
better Church with the presence, the
talent, the energy and the faith of
younger people,” he says.
It can be taxing work but Cusick
is optimistic. “If I wasn’t hopeful, I
wouldn’t be doing this. I’d have to get
a real job and that would be terrifying.
Who would want that?”
Such hope is shared by Rachel, John
and especially Theresa, who feels her
generation is eager for the truth behind
their faith and is well-prepared for answers.
“I’m definitely hopeful,” she says.
“I think there’s a lot of hope for our
generation. We are hungering for the
truth and we’re finding it and we’re
not going to let it go.”
For more information on a Theology-on-Tap series in your area, consult
your diocese’s young-adult ministry
program or the National Catholic
Young Adult Ministry Association
Father John Cusick: Keeping the Young at Heart
If you give Father John Cusick a forum from which to speak—a
podium, a telephone, an interview—he seems more than happy
to take it. Cusick has the kind of enthusiasm that traps your
attention: He’s quick-witted, very funny but deadly serious—particularly when it comes to young-adult ministry.
“My fear is that contemporary Catholicism is one built on function
without form. The function is getting the job done, getting the children educated, getting the
sacraments ministered, making sure there are
enough ministers on Sunday
and weekend Masses
and all that, but the form
is missing,” he says.
“People will constantly
say, ‘We don’t have young
adults in our community.’
That is a boldface lie. You
may not have them in the
pews but don’t say they’re
not in the neighborhood.”
So Cusick sought to
bring the meandering
young adults back to the
Church, a mission that has
dominated his life. And it
has been fruitful. Last summer
in Chicago, more
than 40 parishes hosted Theology-on-Tap sessions simultaneously. Do
the math: Forty places hosting the series for four weeks equals 160
opportunities for young Catholics to reconnect with their faith.
The program has proven invaluable in luring back many young and
disenfranchised Catholics, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect device.
Like anything else, it’s a work-in-progress.
“I’m always looking to build a better mousetrap. Last year, for
example, we ran four different programs within Theology-on-Tap.
There’s the general Theology-on-Tap program, as well as a track just
for college-age students,” Cusick says.
“We have one in Polish because there is a huge Polish immigrant
population in Chicago, most of whom are young. And we are doing
it in Spanish. This year, my dream is to have a couple Catholic high
schools in Chicago be a host site for their alums.”
Big dreams aside, Cusick seems happiest when he’s standing before
a crowd of eager young-adult Catholics who are thirsty for theology.
“There’s no greater thing in the world than to stand in front of a
group of people and call them to their own potential and possibility.”
Christopher Heffron is a 30-something assistant editor
at St. Anthony Messenger. In 1997, he graduated
with dual majors in English and communication
arts from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati,