Not losing faith

How one college parish is reaching millennials

When it comes to religion, a report described the millennial generation, those currently between ages 18 to 33, as “relatively unattached to organized religion.”

“It’s insane how many students lose their faith in college,” said Jessica Harris, director of evangelization of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, across the street from Colorado State University.

Twenty nine percent of young adults identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” in “Millennials in Adulthood,” a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center. This was at or near the highest level of religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that Pew has been polling on religion.

Bucking that study, St. John XXIII reported that student weekly Mass attendance has doubled in the last four years—from about 300 students to 600 on a typical Sunday.

The parish attributes the uptick in participation to making campus ministry that provides Catholic students “their own personal identity in the faith” a priority. They have a team of five fulltime Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries, a campus minister and will add a second campus minister this summer.

Photos by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic

“Students are craving something to call their own,” Harris said. “A history, a tradition, a community they feel safe in. The Church can provide that.”

When arriving at St. John XXIII almost four years ago, pastor Father Rocco Porter, bumped up the number of weekend Masses to help accommodate students’ busy schedules, as well as prioritized a return to orthodoxy in the liturgy.

“(Many are) increasingly drawn to high church traditions,” Rachel Held Evans wrote in the CNN blog post “Why millennials are leaving the church.” “Precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

There are now six Masses each weekend at St. John XXIII, including a Latin extraordinary form, a Byzantine liturgy, one with praise music, and a “traveler’s Mass” at 8 p.m. Sundays for those returning from a weekend away. There is also a weekly candlelight Mass celebrated Thursdays at 9 p.m.

“Father Rocco (Porter) pulls out all the stops for this,” Harris said, “candles, bells, incense.”

Some 200-250 students attend the candlelight Mass each week.

“We win the world by beauty,” Harris said, “by taking the time to make things beautiful.”

Building on beauty and a priority of prayer, the parish recently established a perpetual adoration chapel.

“Students are happy to take a 3 a.m. hour in the chapel,” Harris said. “The response has been overwhelming.”

The hourly commitments have been filled by a combination of students, St. John parishioners comprised of about 700 families, beyond the student population; as well as other Fort Collins parishes including St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Holy Family.

The parish also builds community by being a gathering place for students 24-7, a place to find “Catholic friends.”

“The church is open 24-7 as a study space,” Harris said of a secured room, with a kitchen, converted for student use. “They’re in there studying and cooking together, making study snacks.”

Photos by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic

Students have access to a theology library, Bible studies and other classes, sacramental preparation, retreats, service projects, pro-life events, and speakers geared towards topics of concern to them such as divorce and birth control, at the Theology on Tap series. Parishioners prepare a free meal for students every Sunday after 5:15 p.m. Mass at “Sunday Night Suppers.” On campus, the Aggiornamento Institute sponsors a lecture series.

“We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness,” Evans wrote. “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”

> St. John XXIII Parish students

Attend weekend Mass: 600

In Bible studies: 400

Attend Sunday Night Suppers: 300

Attend Thursday candlelight Mass: 250

Student faith leaders: 100

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash