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Young Adult Catholics: Are They Coming Back?

By Theresa Carson

Although Church participation by young adults has waned in parts of this country, three thriving Chicago parishes provide a model for others.


Young Adult Catholics
Photo 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 ‘Generation X.’”

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 young-adult community.

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 projects.

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,” Sandberg suggests.

“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 people.”

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 important.”

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 their gifts.”

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 other people.”

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 lives.”

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 taken seriously.”

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 emerge.

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 programs.

“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.

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