Catholics leaving pews; new initiatives aim to be antidotes

| May 21, 2015 | 6 Comments

Each week, Brad Parent goes to Mass on Sunday, but he also attends one weekday Mass and spends an hour in eucharistic adoration. He tries to pray a daily rosary, often splitting the five decades between his short commute to and from work as an actuary in downtown St. Paul. He meets with a spiritual director about once a month, and is an active member of his parish, St. Mark in St. Paul.

NET Ministries team leader Erika Christopher, left, of the St. Peter, Forest Lake, team prays during a Lifeline Mass at the NET Center Feb. 7. Next to her is Jessica Nieters, plus other teens from St. Peter. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

NET Ministries team leader Erika Christopher, left, of the St. Peter, Forest Lake, team prays during a Lifeline Mass at the NET Center Feb. 7. Next to her is Jessica Nieters, plus other teens from St. Peter. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Parent is 25, which makes his dedication to his faith increasingly unusual among young adults, especially those who identify as Catholic. According to a Pew Research Center study released May 12, more than a third of America’s Millennials — adults aged 18-33 — are religiously unaffiliated. Only 16 percent of Miliennials are Catholic, compared to 21 percent of Americans born 1965-1980, and 24 percent born 1928-1945.

Catholicism, the study shows, has experienced the greatest loss of adherents without replacing them with converts. “No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains,” Pew reported.

Few, if any, experts have found the numbers surprising, but they’re startling nonetheless, said Jean Stolpestad, director of the Office for Marriage, Family and Life for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“Our archdiocese has been aware of these concerns for years and has been trying to craft a means to address the underlying issues,” she said. “We need to help families connect in more meaningful ways. We also need to help build a culture within our parishes that better serves the discovery and integration of faith.”

Archdiocesan leaders hope two new initiatives can play a key role in keeping Catholics in the Church through fostering an authentic relationship with Christ.

Both aim to change longstanding catechetical models for children and teenagers by placing the responsibility for faith formation on parents, making catechesis less about requirement checkboxes and more about learning to live as Christian families.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than teachers,” Sean Dalton told a group of about 70 youth ministers gathered at St. Peter in North St. Paul May 8. He was quoting St. John Paul II from a 1979 general audience.

Connecting youth with Christian witnesses is part of an emerging model of youth ministry known as discipleship. Dalton directs YDisciple, a discipleship “process” — as opposed to “program” — out of the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. He calls discipleship an “apprenticeship in Christian living.”

It’s a direction Ellen Bauman wants to take faith formation at St. Maximilian Kolbe in Delano. The director of faith formation for senior high students, Bauman sensed something lacking in the youth-group-based ministry model and began shadowing parishes in other dioceses doing youth ministry differently.

One of the parishes she visited, Immaculate Conception in Watertown, South Dakota, implemented discipleship groups and saw “an explosion” of interest from parents, she said.

Brad Parent

Brad Parent

For Bauman, this indicated youth groups’ disconnect from parents was part of their failure. “We try to motivate adult leaders and adult catechists for a very set amount of time — a school year — and it doesn’t serve well the family when it’s a lifestyle we live as disciples of Christ 365 days a year.”

Discipleship groups are typically small, single-sex and include teenagers with common interests. They’re formed by parents, led by mentors from the parish and meet in the youths’ homes. The youth form strong relationships with each other and their mentors, feel supported by their parents, and learn through conversation, prayer and example what it means to live a Christ-centered life.

“If we can make the family vibrant, go after the parents, renew their hearts, and go into the home . . . that kid is going to take notice of the parent. And that’s going to grow Mass attendance and the Church,” Bauman said. “It’s more of an organic, right-ordered way that embraces the role of the family and the responsibility of the family.”

Annie Grandell, director of youth ministry at St. Michael and St. Mary in Stillwater, began implementing discipleship groups at her parishes several years ago. This fall she is “taking the plunge” and ending the separate youth group program.

“The kids aren’t interested in it anymore,” said Grandell, who has been in her position for 10 years. “What was working for us three years ago just isn’t working anymore. The numbers aren’t there. The kids that are coming are coming because it’s where their friends are hanging out, but the nights we do discipleship . . . are blowing up [in attendance], and the kids that are invested are really, really invested.”

For years, Grandell’s persistent question for her work was how to get more kids to youth group. When a three-month hiatus from work allowed her to reflect on the goal, she realized the question needed to change to “Is youth group working?”

She discerned it wasn’t meeting the students’ needs, and she was willing to upend her work to make sure it did.

No denying ‘fruit’

Andrew Wagenbach describes the discipleship model as “going smaller and with more intention.” The youth minister at St. Peter in North St. Paul, Wagenbach said his parish is moving toward a family-based discipleship model.

Observing Catholics with lackluster faith convinced Wagenbach and several of his colleagues to move toward the discipleship model. “There wasn’t a desire, a zeal or a fire” among Catholics involved in conventional ministry, he said, which is not the case with families engaged in discipleship groups.

“How can you deny the fruit of something?” he asked.

Discipleship also passes the ball back to the parents, he said, even those who feel unprepared to teach their kids about the faith. “Go after the parent, and you’ll get the kid,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘It’s necessary for you to educate your child.’ . . . Until you have that zeal and desire for your own personal faith, how would you ever pass that zeal and desire on to your kids?”

It’s not enough for parents to send their children to Catholic schools; they have to dedicate time to fostering their children’s faith, he said.

However, Wagenbach knows many parents don’t feel equipped to do so. Because discipleship’s model allows parents to learn with their kids, it “fulfills a desire that most parents have, but don’t know how to do it,” he added. “They get to catechize themselves and not look stupid in front of their kids because they’re learning alongside of them.”

Bill Dill, the archdiocese’s marriage preparation and youth ministry events coordinator, called discipleship “totally the way to go” because it encourages small groups and the “integration of parents and youth ministry.”

“If people don’t know the Lord, why would they want to know more about him?” he asked. “This is a great way to introduce people to the Lord so that they desire to know more about him.”

Capturing the young

For Dalton, parents are the key to discipleship. “I don’t want us to underestimate the importance parents can make,” he told the group at St. Peter.

That was the case for Brad Parent, who points to his mother, Cindy, as the key to his steadfast faith.

“Even when we weren’t Catholic, we loved Jesus and we had a great relationship with him, and she would always tell us, the thing she wanted most in life was for her boys to love Jesus,” Parent said.

His parents left the Catholic Church when they were young adults, and raised him and his brother, Greg, as Episcopalians. They came back to the Church when Parent was a freshman in high school, and he went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

When the family began considering Catholicism, his mom led the charge. He recalls complaining when she played recordings of Catholic apologists on car rides, but he listened and noted his mother’s enthusiasm.

Once Catholic, Parent attended confirmation classes, but wasn’t impressed. The teacher was nice, but not compelling, and his fellow public-school students goofed off. With Protestant friends, he started a small Bible study at his school, and when he graduated, passed leadership to Greg, who is now a seminarian for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

That engagement with Scripture is something Emily Cavins and three colleagues hope to instill in Catholic children well before their teenage years with “Gen2Rev Storybook: A Walk through the Catholic Bible.” Ten years in the making, the forthcoming book and curriculum are designed for guiding grade-school-aged children through Scripture.

The book is designed to help children — and their parents — understand not only the chronology of biblical stories, but also how they reveal salvation history, or God’s relationship with the human race.

“It’s a missing portion of faith formation and the Catholic understanding of the Bible, because [Catholics] never hear it from beginning to end. They hear it in chunks from liturgical seasons and faith formation,” Cavins said. “Our storybook takes all the historical narratives in the Bible and walks you through it from Genesis to Revelation.”

Emily Cavins is married to Jeff Cavins, archdiocesan director of  evangelization and catechesis and author of the Great Adventure Bible Timeline. Jeff Cavins plans to use “Gen2Rev” as the basis for a new initiative called “Every Child Reads the Bible.” It aims to encourage adults — especially fathers and grandparents — to read Scripture
to children.

“Unless you capture them while they’re young, the world will capture them, and you will fight to get them back,” Jeff Cavins said.

Aspiring to holiness

Unlike many of his peers, Parent never felt pulled away from the Catholic Church, he said. “I was at a place when I left high school that I was going to go to Mass,” he said. “I was going to take my faith seriously.”

Beyond his parents, Parent credits experiences on prayer-rooted trips led by Catholic Youth Expeditions, a then-fledgling Wisconsin-based camping organization that has since blossomed into a robust outdoors ministry. In college, a demanding track team schedule kept him on the fringes of St. Paul’s Outreach, but he found in its young adult missionaries Catholic community and examples of the Christian life.

Now a young adult leader at St. Mark, Parent gives considerable thought to ways to attract his peers to the Church. He has plenty of friends who grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools, but who don’t know what it means to be Catholic, he said. They’re nice people, he said, but the Church makes no impact on how they live their lives, and it may be because they’re following their parents’ examples.

“When you don’t see it being the most important thing to your parents,” he said, “then it doesn’t become the most important thing to you.”

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