Caitlin Pride works with young adults who love the Church. She said she’s noticed that some are able to connect with a parish, but others are effectively turned away. It’s a shame, she says, because millennials want what a parish provides: Community.
Pride is the Manager for Alumni Relations for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University. She has watched former FOCUS missionaries and students across the country go into parishes, some to continue living a vibrant faith, others to flounder.
“They’re having a hard time finding a place. It’s just a weird time, when you’re transient and transitional,” she said.
Millennials have taken a utilitarian approach to Catholicism. According to the book Young Catholic America, young Catholics are still likely to state their affiliation to the Catholic Church, but they want to retain the right to define that as they wish. They are less likely than other age groups to go to Mass or confession, and are selective in which practices they believe. They are less likely to put their Catholic identity at the center of their life, and largely unable to give a coherent account of what it means to be Catholic.
And yet, there are exceptions. Many of those exceptions are located right here in the Archdiocese of Denver.
Christ in the City, Camp Wojtyla, the Augustine Institute and Real Life Catholic are just some of the dynamic groups ministering to millennials and younger that call the archdiocese home. FOCUS is headquartered here, as well, and has a presence at four universities in northern Colorado.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that our young adults are bucking the national trend.
Take Eric Nydegger, for example. Nydegger was in a FOCUS Bible study as an undergrad at School of Mines. Now he’s a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima. He and a friend attended a few parish events, and were then asked to lead a group for other young adults.
“We started leading a study once a week and had about 10 people show up. Then it bloomed to 20, and then the word started getting out,” Nydegger said.
The Fatima group spends about six weeks on a given topic, studying everything from Pentecost to papal writings.
They soon began to pull young adults from neighboring parishes. However, Nydegger said they realized their ministry wouldn’t be successful if they made one huge young adult group at Fatima. He and the other leaders realized they needed to equip the other young adults to start small groups at their own parishes.
“We could have robbed them from the other parishes, but we want young adults to be involved at their own parishes,” Nydegger said. “We want them to volunteer, for the young adults to become a part of a parish instead of just walking through the door, praying and leaving. We wanted them to find a home, instead of just coming in to be fed.”
That’s their secret sauce: Instead of creating a mega-parish, each parish has a young adult community. Those communities are connected to other young adult groups in their deanery. As a result, there are now young adult small groups at St. Joseph’s in Golden, St. Jude in Lakewood, Christ on the Mountain in Lakewood, Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge and St. Mary’s in Littleton, in addition to the group at Fatima.
Pride said that this speaks to millennials because it allows individuals to lead, instead of being another face in a crowd.
“Our generation really wants to be leaders, and start things and mobilize things, so [this] model speaks to more people who want to step up into leadership models,” she said.
She said it also speaks to the young adults’ desire to be authentic.
“You can go a lot deeper when it’s a smaller group. There’s something about the authenticity and accountability. If it’s a huge group, then there’s an anonymity. But when it’s small, you know you have to go because people will notice. I think there’s something about authentic fellowship that’s meant to take place in that smaller group setting,” Pride said.
Katie McNulty, who also participated in FOCUS in college, joined the small group at Fatima as soon as she graduated college. She said that even though Fatima has been her parish since childhood, the small group has helped her to feel included in the parish, and to integrate her faith into her everyday life.
“The thing I love about the Fatima group is that it’s so communal. You see everybody at Mass and then at study, but then also at the grocery store and gas station and around the neighborhood,” she said.
Why it works
Hilary Draftz is a parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul. She has also worked for FOCUS for 14 years. Draftz said that the rapidly secularizing culture makes it more important for young adults to have community, especially if they are at a strong point in their faith.
“It’s a scary time to be a young adult Catholic, but these kinds of movements and tribes are helpful to those who want to stay in the faith,” she said. “If you get three or four on fire, well-formed Catholic leaders in a parish, they’ll be able to keep each other on fire, like burning coals placed next to each other.”
The young adults regularly get together for social time, and to see how they can support each other in ministry. Draftz said Nydegger helped her move the Sts. Peter and Paul group from mostly social events to a small group study. She also said she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that so many neighboring parishes decided to start young adult small groups together.
“It’s really a movement,” she said. “I think the Lord is orchestrating this and it’s here to stay.”