Local Church leaders work to recapture the millennial generation

Conference offers tips for evangelizing those who ‘show up to Mass in ripped skinny jeans’

Moira Cullings

According to a Pew Research Center study, 58 percent of younger millennials who are Catholic believe in God, 86 percent believe in heaven and 41 percent pray at least daily. Yet, only 26 percent attend religious services each week.

“One of the reasons I think Millennials have left the Church is because of the weight that it carries,” said Adam Henrichs, Executive Director of Creatio, a program that offers young adults opportunities for hiking adventures, mission trips and pilgrimages.

“They have a fear of being lumped into a specific category, especially if that category has been tagged as hypocritical, judgmental, or tolerant of sexual abuse,” said Henrichs.

“I see a lot of my millennial friends becoming ‘spiritual, but not religious,’” he continued, “and I think this is because they recognize the vast emptiness that our hearts have without God, but, at the same time, don’t want to subscribe to an ‘uncomfortable label.’”

Fortunately, Catholic leaders across the country are determined to win this generation back for the sake of the Church’s future.

The Millennial Church Conference took place in Denver on Sept. 19. Photo by Brandon Ortega

“What will move the hearts of this generation is not the latest encyclical and it’s not the bishops’ statements and all of these things,” said Pete Burak, Director of i.d.9:16, a ministry located in several states that offers young adults opportunities to gather and receive faith formation with the intent to build communities of disciples.

“What’s going to move the hearts of this generation is people on fire with the love of God who are willing to die to see others come alive.”

Burak spoke to local Catholic leaders at the Millennial Church Conference on Sept. 19 at Risen Christ Parish. He was joined by Pete and Emily Burds, as well as Sarah Kaczmarek.

Attendees included parish and ministry leaders across the archdiocese. At the conference, they learned more about the positives and negatives of the millennial generation, as well as simple ways to make them feel more welcomed in the Church.

Helping millennials ‘cultivate’ faith-filled relationships

Many organizations are already working to meet Millennials where they are, including Creatio, which focuses on offering young people a more lighthearted way to grow in their faith through single to multiple day outdoor adventures that build genuine friendships and allow participants to talk about their faith.

Christopher Lanciotti, Creatio’s Formation Director, hopes the opportunity gives young adults the chance to feel heard — something he believes they lack within the Church.

“Outdoor experiences, especially our backpacking trips and pilgrimages, give participants hours upon hours for personal conversation and the chance to build relationships where they can feel heard and understood and literally ‘walk together’ with others who want to help accompany them on their journey of faith or towards the faith,” he said.

Parishes are also working to reach millennials, and Nativity of Our Lord in Broomfield is no exception.

What’s going to move the hearts of this generation is people on fire with the love of God who are willing to die to see others come alive.”

Jacquie Fankell, Nativity’s Director of Communications, has found that deep down, this generation desires authenticity and belonging.

“Although this desire may manifest itself in superficial ways, like a preference for craft beer over light beer, at our core is the true desire of the human heart that longs for meaning and, ultimately, for God,” she said.

When it comes to getting more young adults involved in the parish, Fankell wants them to realize that parish life isn’t the same as “Campus Ministry 2.0,” she said. “We are not surrounded by people our same age anymore.

Christian Meert and Lucy Rodriguez chat during a break at the Millennial Church Conference. Photo by Brandon Ortega

“Many relationships in parish life are intergenerational, but these relationships are so worth taking the time to cultivate,” she continued. “I would encourage people of all generations to take time to engage with, listen to, and develop relationships with others of any age or background.”

Don’t forget the ‘why’

In his talk during the conference, Burak explained that another issue is many young people feel like they were taught the faith but never learned “why” they should believe it.

They were simply lectured about the rules, “as opposed to a living God who loves and who’s real, who sets them free, who has an incredible hope of glory for them, who’s paved the way for new life,” he said.

Burak explained to Denver Catholic that there’s a probable explanation for this lack in formation.

“One of the reasons why I don’t know if the ‘why’ is often presented is because I’m not always sure that we all have fully embraced the Lord and let him transform our life with his love,” he said.

Although Catholic school teachers, religious educators and parish staff are responsible for better explaining our faith, Burak emphasized it’s a two-way street, and millennials also need to take greater ownership of their role in the Church.

Pete Burak speaks to attendees about their responsibility to reach out to young adults during the Millennial Church Conference. Photo by Brandon Ortega

“We’re longing for human interaction and authentic human relationships and ultimately a family atmosphere, yet we often fight it when it’s presented to us,” he said, “because we’re skeptical, we’re scared, we’re cynical and we’re wounded by other false or manipulative [things] that have wounded us in the past.”

Although challenging, Burak believes it’s crucial for the Church to unwaveringly seek to captivate this generation.

I would encourage people of all generations to take time to engage with, listen to, and develop relationships with others of any age or background.”

“If you think about every aspect of the Church’s life right now, it will look radically different in 15 years if we don’t engage this generation,” he said. “There’s no statistic to suggest that they’re just going to come back on their own like previous generations.”

For Henrichs, one of the best things for the Church to do is “to raise up saints in our own time,” and that, he said, starts with simple acts of kindness.

“I think our parishes, Catholic apostolates and organizations need to be the examples of Christ to millennials,” he said, “radically loving them and accepting them, even when they show up to Mass in ripped skinny jeans.”

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)


Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”


After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.


Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”