SPO founder reflects on what young adults need — and why its model works 

| October 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

Gordy DeMarais talks about evangelization at the Men’s Conference March 18, 2017. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Gordy DeMarais, 60, has worked in youth and young adult ministry for 40 years. In 1985, he founded St. Paul’s Outreach, a Catholic outreach on college campuses, and he continues to serve as its president. Now the Inver Grove Heights-based organization has a presence in seven states. DeMarais serves on the board of directors for NET ministries and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, and is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Alliance for Catholic Campus Ministry Committee. He is a parishioner of St. Peter in Mendota and a member of the Community of Christ the Redeemer, a Catholic covenant community. The Catholic Spirit asked him by email to provide an overview of young adult ministry in light of the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment that began at the Vatican Oct. 3. His responses have been edited for clarity.

Q. Why did you found SPO? Has the need you were seeking to meet changed over the three decades since its founding?

A. Although I grew up Catholic in a good Catholic family going to Catholic schools, I fell away from the faith during my teens. While in college, a friend of mine began to share with me about the love of Jesus Christ and that he had a purpose and plan for my life. That led me eventually to the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center, where I experienced deep conversion and the reawakening of my faith. As I tried to live that newly rediscovered faith in the dorms at college, I struggled. I needed formation. I needed a supportive community. When some years later as a staff person at that same CYC I was given the task of building a local university outreach program, my own experience of being evangelized and needing community and formation formed the backdrop for the way of doing campus outreach that we developed in SPO.

If the need has changed, its only in matter of degree. Young people today are more hopeless and lonely. The temptations to abandon faith are strong and ever present. But they are still the same basic need: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you O Lord.”

Q. How has your work with SPO given you special insight into young adult culture?

A. One of the great blessing and joys of my life is to have been serving in the work of evangelization of young people for over 40 years. Young adulthood is a very important season in a person’s life. It is during these years that people are discovering who they are. They are making choices for themselves that have been made by their parents. They are making choices that will impact the rest of their lives. It is so important that these young people have wise and holy older brothers and sisters in Christ walking with them through this time. It is very important that this time in life be informed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Q. How would you describe the state of millennial culture today?

A. Our world is a challenging place today to live as a faithful committed Christian. The challenges before our young people are significant. At the core of the secular millennial culture is a radical and even perverse selfishness. Life is all about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of things, and the use of other people to attain one’s own goals. Young people, even those with faith, struggle with addiction to media and gaming, pornography and sexual immorality, with loneliness, anxiety and despair. They need the Gospel, and they need to experience that Gospel through loving relationships with others.

Q. How have you seen young adult culture change over the course of your ministry?

A. Selfishness has been around since Adam and Eve. It’s the original sin. Once again, if things have changed over 40 years, it’s in matters of degrees.

Q. What gives you the most hope about young adults today?

A. Young people have tremendous energy and creativity. When you are young, you believe you can change the world. Great movements begin with young people. Young people whom I know who offer the treasure of their youth in service of our Lord will change the world. This brings me hope.

Q. What convinces you that SPO is an evangelization model that works?

A. Jesus says in John 15, “you will know them by their fruit.” SPO is now 32 years old and we see the fruit. So many SPO alumni have gone off to priesthood and religious life. I was just on the phone this morning with a young man who lived in household in the late 1990s. He is the vocations director for the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Another former SPO missionary is the servant superior of that same order. Every year SPO alumni go off to seminary or postulancy. Over 200 SPO alumni are priests and religious. So many more are living faithfully as mothers and father of committed Christian families. And now their children are becoming adults and continuing to the next generation that life of deep faith. Currently 12 of our missionaries are children of SPO alumni. That is fruit that lasts. SPO alumni are changing the culture and the Church. SPO alumni are leaders in some of our best Catholic high schools, leaders in pro-life work, forming our deacons, teaching and forming are seminarians, active members of their parishes and leaders in business.

Our model is effective because it is Jesus’ model. It’s the model of the missionaries and disciples in the Book of Acts. It’s a comprehensive, relationship-centered, process-oriented approach that is reaching young people, calling them to radical and life-changing conversion, forming them to be lifelong faithful Catholics and sending them on mission.

Q. What do you wish all Catholics understood about young adults?

A. They are hungry deep down for the Gospel — all of them. Even if they don’t realize it. They are searching. They are looking for authentic relationships.

Q. What advice do you have for parents of a teenager or young adult concerned about helping them grow in faith?

A. Our young people need to see their parents living their faithful in a committed and radical way. The best thing parents can do for their teens is to pursue holiness themselves. That’s the starting point. Do my children see me pray? Do they see me serve? Do they see me striving to grow in virtue? Do they see me going to confession? Is faith the center of our home life? Do we pray together as a family? Do we share meals together? Do we talk about faith and daily life around the dinner table? Do we pray for our children? Regularly? Constantly?

It’s important in passing the faith on to our children to “stay in the game.” Our relationship with our children has it high points and low points. We need to navigate those moments carefully and maintain the relationship. Becoming a mature and faithful Catholic is a process. We must avoid the attitude that suggests that all we need to do is get them to 18 and then they are on their own. We need to be engaged with them throughout all of the transitions of youth and young adulthood. Every child is different and their way to the Lord varies.

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