Local Church leaders work to recapture the millennial generation

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

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”