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Theology-on-Tap: Quenching a Spiritual Thirst
By Christopher Heffron
Over the last quarter century, thousands of young-adult Catholics have found their faith replenished through this grassroots initiative.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Growing Movement
Still Hungry
Rachel Sacksteder: Coming Home
John Sparks: Faith Rediscovered
Theresa Ruthman: Giving Back
Thirsty for More?
Father John Cusick: Keeping the Young at Heart


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 in Theology-on-Tap.

“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 my family.”

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 Real Father.”

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 over 400.

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 faith seekers.

“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.”

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Still Hungry

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 change.

“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 and sales.

“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 my life.”

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 champions.

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 started attending.

“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 shared.

“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 like-minded.”

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 discuss them.”

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,” he says.

“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,” he asserts.

“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 they’re at.”

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 the country.

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. Catholic population.

He suggests the younger generations are growing up in a society that fosters self-absorption.

“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 (www.ncyama.org).

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, Ohio.


 


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