Ms. Katherine F. DeVries
Last Fall, Leah Thomas, a talented, young graduate of Notre Dame, wrote a telling article for BustedHalo.com, the Paulist website aimed at young adults. She called it, “19 and Counting… How far does a girl have to go to find a spiritual home?” The article describes her quest to find a church to call home after moving out of state to begin her career. “I didn’t really feel I was asking for too much,” she wrote. “…An active parish, one that had a good sense of liturgy and decent music, thought provoking preaching… a social conscience… a welcoming hospitable atmosphere.” After visiting and being disappointed by parish #19, her search continues.
Leah is not alone in her struggle to find a parish to call home. There are many others – most specifically those who do not “fit the norm” – who are looking for a spiritual place where they will feel welcome and will be fed spiritually. Those seekers include (but are not limited to) those in their 20s and 30s, singles of all ages, homosexuals, the divorced, single parents, those remarried outside of the Church, and families with members who are physically, mentally, or developmentally challenged. It is a reality that no parish can provide everything for everyone. There are some basic ingredients, however, that make a huge difference in the quality of a parish and its ability to meet the needs of its people.
Through our work with people in their 20s and 30s, married and single, director Fr. John Cusick and I have heard the following comments from young adults:
- “My parish serves two groups of people: families with kids, and senior citizens.”
- “The place I worship is for people with roots: kids and a mortgage.”
- “I walk in on Sunday knowing no one, and leave knowing no one.”
- “My parish is a private religious country club. You take out your membership and pay dues – then you get perks, like having your wedding there or getting your kids baptized.”
- “I don’t get involved because there’s nothing there for me.”
- “They told me that before I could set a date for my wedding I had to be an active member of the parish for six months. That just can’t happen right now.”
- “It’s my own fault. I stopped going to church years ago. It’s really hard to come back.”
- “I was a Eucharistic Minister at college. I offered to help at my parish, but no one has gotten back to me.”
- “Every Mass begins, ‘Welcome to our parish family.’ How can they keep calling it ‘family’ when we don’t know each other and some of us don’t fit in?”
Following are ten suggestions for creating more welcoming, positive, faith-filled experiences of Church – especially for those who, like the young adults above, do not feel they “fit in.”
Provide great preaching, music and hospitality at Sunday Mass. Sunday Mass is critically important. It is where we showcase our faith, and it is the main point of contact between most Catholics and their church. If you can only focus on one area, spend time, energy and resources on your preaching, music and hospitality. It will make the most amount of difference in helping all who attend feel welcome, connected, and spiritually fed.
Take inventory – who is present, and who is not? Consider age, gender, state in life (married, single, divorced, single parents, widowed, etc.), and differing abilities. At each parish Mass, take inventory of everyone in leadership and ministerial positions. How old are they? In parish organizations, including parish governance, who is present/represented and who is not? Consider what can be done to encourage greater participation among those least present.
Use “The Jesus Method of Organizing.” Jesus never put a sign on a palm tree saying: “If you want to be an apostle, sign up here.” Instead he went from town to town, personally inviting people to “Follow me.” Extend a direct, personal invitation for people with particular experiences and gifts to have a conversation with a staff member, join a brainstorming session, participate in a small Christian community, join the parish council, become a lector, etc. Listen to them and build upon their wisdom and gifts.
Learn to celebrate people’s moments of return. There are some key moments, when those who have been away for a while return to Mass: weddings, baptisms, funerals, times of intense tragedy or loss, and when facing difficult decisions. These are opportunities to extend gracious hospitality and the Love of Christ.
Presume little; explain lots. As with every profession, ministers have their own jargon: RCIA, DRE, CCD, EM, mystagogia, evangelization, paschal mystery, catechumen, etc. Whenever using such terms, define them. Avoid loaded phrases like “family” and “community,” which define people as being either “in” or “out.”
Accept all offers to volunteer. Everyone who offers should be contacted and encouraged to help somewhere. Also, seek out people’s gifts. We all have gifts to share. Be especially watchful of students, who return home from college with strong, new skills. Additionally, set goals for involvement from various groups (e.g., half of the Eucharistic ministers at the 10:30 Mass will be under the age of 40).
Host opportunities for people of similar age or state in life to gather. Consider small Christian communities made up of young adults, single parents, new moms, young married couples, developmentally delayed adults, etc. Create support groups for those separated or divorced, and those grieving the loss of a loved one. Offer dialogue groups for those new to the parish. If you need help deciding what would be most beneficial to a particular group, just bring them together and ask them. Most will be touched that you asked, and honored to share their wisdom.
Focus on adult faith formation. Adult faith formation helps us make connections between our faith and work, relationships, and the various other areas of our lives. Consider these opportunities for spiritual growth geared toward the various groups: Bible study, Catholic faith basics, spiritual direction, small Christian communities, career counseling, marriage enrichment, discernment workshops, etc. When parish missions and other parish events are being planned, invite representatives from the various groups to personally invite their peers to attend.
Attend to the third moment of a sacrament: follow-up. We have become relatively good at the preparation for the sacrament and the sacramental moment itself, but then what? Consider an annual reunion for the newly initiated. Host marriage enrichment seminars and opportunities to join young married couples. Create an outreach to contact parents every six months after baptizing their child until they begin school. Ask simply, “How is Mark Thomas?” and “Is there anything we can do for you?” Learn to listen and act upon the feedback you hear.
Create new opportunities for evangelization. Through the people who are connected, seek out those who are not. Such initiatives as “bring a friend to church” and the “first timers table” at the breakfast after Mass can make a huge difference. Moreover, all who worship in the parish will begin to understand that Church is not about “what’s in it for me” as much as it is about mission and caring for the people around us.
Hopefully, the suggestions listed above have you thinking and dreaming about “what can be” in your parish. How exciting it is to envision a place where all of God’s people, of all ages and all states in life, can find a spiritual home.
Ms. Katherine DeVries is the associate director of the Young Adult Ministry Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago (www.yamchicago.org), co-author of The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), and a D. Min. candidate at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.