I recently read a thought-provoking article by a pastor, Father Peter Daly, who shared his frustrations in trying to reach the young adults in his area. He held a listening session for his young members and their friends, some of whom had been raised Catholic and had left the Church, others who come to Mass most of the time, and some who consider themselves Catholic while attending a nearby non-denominational congregation. They voiced their honest misgivings and frustrations, all the while saying it was not that their catechesis had been weak. They know what the Church teaches. They have difficulty in accepting the teachings or the way they are articulated and lived out in local parish communities. His concerns and dedication to meeting the young people with interest and compassion inspired me, as did his forthright description of the things that are driving many young adults away: perceived discrimination against gays and lesbians; lack of hospitality and welcoming of those who are not regularly present among us; insistence on adherence to Church teaching in order to "belong"; reticence to become involved or to admit to their religious faith among peers.
As I read his heartfelt article, I listened through the experience of so many parishes that, like Fr. Daly's parish, are struggling to engage young adults. I also thought of the research by the Gallup Organization, Pew Forum, and the Barna Group, and experiences in parishes throughout North America that I believe offer ways we may reach out to them, through the already-engaged people in our parishes and by building an engaging parish culture, and I felt compelled to share some of these thoughts here.
Those of us who have studied and have experience with the Gallup research on engagement know that relationships matter, perhaps more than we might imagine, as we build more engaging communities of faith. Belonging leads to believing! Drawing people of any age, particularly young adults, into the life of the parish is an important step in leading them toward a deep relationship with Christ and with the Church. In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis helps us think about this from two important perspectives: the primary place of encounter with Jesus, and the role of the evangelizing community in leading people to that encounter, every day of their lives.
Father Daly's openness to dialogue is a huge and important step in building such a culture of engagement in the parish. He built a bridge between himself, his parish, and the young adults who came to his listening session. One of the steps in building engagement is giving people an opportunity to be heard. In the words of the research, to know that their "opinions count." It isn't that our teachings will change, nor will we change our surrounding culture today or tomorrow, although we are called to impact that culture over time through the way in which we live our lives. What we can do, I believe, is to intentionally build bridges between people, helping them to come to a relationship with us, through which they may fall in love with Christ and over time develop an appreciation for the Church as the Body of Christ.
I believe many might take Father Daly's lead and listen to the young adults among and around us. Build relationships with them. Invite them to share their frustrations, insights, hopes, dreams and desires for a Church and world that live Jesus' loving way. Build bridges to them by linking them to young adults who are already engaged, and to parishioners who are wiling to enter into a searching relationship with them. Many young adults want to be mentored, and eventually to mentor. They want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, and can do so within our parishes and beyond them.
Thank you, Father Daly, and all who build bridges within our parishes and dioceses. May we learn from you, so that, together, we may build more engaging and evangelizing communities of faith.