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: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.