April 5, 2013

Hoping to make a connection

Young adult Catholics eager to be a part of community while nurturing their lives of faith

Erica Heinekamp poses by the Prayer Wall she has created for her fourth-grade students at St. Susanna School in Plainfield. Heinekamp is one of many young adults in the archdiocese eager to be a part of community while nurturing her life of faith. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Erica Heinekamp poses by the Prayer Wall she has created for her fourth-grade students at St. Susanna School in Plainfield. Heinekamp is one of many young adults in the archdiocese eager to be a part of community while nurturing her life of faith. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This story is the second in a continuing series about the challenges that young adult Catholics face, and the contributions that they make to the archdiocese and the broader Church. See the first installment here.)

By John Shaughnessy

As a young adult Catholic, Erica Heinekamp has experienced different challenges to living her faith—starting with the uncomfortable situation she faced as a college student.

After graduating from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis in 2002, Heinekamp enrolled at a state university in southern Indiana where she encountered a group of students from a different faith denomination who pointedly told her that her Catholic faith was “flawed.”

“There were a lot of arguments about the Bible and the emphasis that Catholics have on Mary,” the 29-year-old Heinekamp recalls. “I could see that we could only be friends if I denounced my Catholicism.”

She has also endured challenges from fellow Catholics at the parish level.

“When I was looking for a parish, I signed up at one parish for ministry positions as a lector and a eucharistic minister, and I never got called,” she says. “Young adults are eager to serve and know they are part of the Church.”

In both instances—during college and after college—Heinekamp’s experiences reflect some of the challenges that many young adult Catholics face in living their faith. Her experiences also offer a glimpse of one of the most driving forces in their lives—the desire to belong.

As part of the 18- to 35-year-old age group, young adult Catholics long for friendships that connect them. They want to be loved and give love in a deep relationship with another person. They also seek a faith that sustains them, creates a community for them and brings them closer to God.

“Our generation really wants to belong,” says Katie Sahm, 30, coordinator of young adult ministry for the archdiocese. “They go places where they want to fit in. They want to love and be loved.”

Father Rick Nagel has witnessed that desire as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, a parish that has great success in attracting and supporting young adult Catholics.

“It’s been a surprise for me in this ministry for young adults of how important it is to create community,” Father Nagel says.

At 27, Katherine Seibert echoes that longing.

“Young adults are trying to find a place, and establish their life and their faith,” says Seibert, a member of St. Michael Parish in Greenfield.

Hoping to make a connection

While the desire to belong is strong in young adult Catholics, so is the archdiocese’s desire to connect them more closely to their faith, according to Matt Faley, the archdiocese’s director of young adult and college campus ministry.

“We have great hope,” Faley says. “We are able to see on a daily basis how young adults are having their eyes opened, and they’re where they want to be in the Church. For those who are active, their faith is not just another thing. It really does inform everything in their lives.”

Heinekamp reflects that approach in her life.

“My Catholic faith is inseparable from my being,” says Heinekamp, who is single, a teacher at St. Susanna School in Plainfield and a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “I’m so grateful for the sacraments that the Church offers. I try to go to Mass daily and confession often. I do it because I need it. I love the traditions of the Catholic faith.”

So does Scott Seibert, the husband of Katherine Seibert.

“My Catholic faith is my life,” says Scott Seibert, 26, a social worker and a member of St. Michael Parish in Greenfield. “Every decision, every action is formed by my faith and my relationship with Christ. That’s what I strive for.”

Yet Heinekamp, the Seiberts and other young adult Catholics who live their faith deeply are in the minority, according to a 2010 study by the Knights of Columbus and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. The study noted that just 25 percent of young adult Catholics attend a religious service at least once a month.

And Faley notes that “statistics show that 85 percent of college students—from the time they were freshmen through their senior year—fall away from their faith.”

It’s a challenge that the archdiocese’s office of young adult and college campus ministry is trying to overcome. It has established an active ministry at 10 college campuses in the archdiocese, with two more in the works. It has also begun to work with parishes to create an active, young adult presence. Nineteen of the archdiocese’s 147 parishes are on board so far.

There are also programs that include small group studies, First Friday prayer services and Theology on Tap, a program where young adults meet in non-traditional religious settings, such as bars, to hear speakers talk about their faith and the Catholic approach to life.

A Catholic intramural sports program in Indianapolis and Theology of the Body programs are also planned for the fall of 2013.

Overwhelmingly, the programs and approaches are designed to create a feeling of community that can lead to a deeper relationship with God.

“When young adults find that community, they start to ask questions,” Father Nagel says. “Then it’s not hard to have them enter into something more in-depth in their spiritual life.”

The connection of community and faith

Heinekamp knows the importance of that connection between community and faith for young adults.

As her faith was being tested in college, it was also being supported by young Catholics who are part of Communion and Liberation, a lay movement within the Church that views “the presence of Christ as the only true response to the deepest needs of human life,” according to the movement’s website for the United States.

“My first day at college, a girl invited me to the group,” Heinekamp recalls. “I remember them valuing my opinion and the way I perceived my life. There was also something mature about the way they lived their faith. I was really moved by that. They helped me.”

So did Father Nagel after she struggled to find a parish where she felt welcomed and needed. Father Nagel needed help at St. John the Evangelist Parish when he started a 7 p.m. Mass on Sundays for college students and young adults. Heinekamp offered her assistance.

“I’m a greeter, a eucharistic minister, a lector,” she says with delight. “I’m on the Haiti committee and the committee for the 175th anniversary of the parish.”

She also leads the Indianapolis chapter of Communion and Liberation, which meets every Monday at 8:30 p.m. at St. John’s. And she’s the fourth-grade teacher at St. Susanna School.

“The most tangible example of living my faith in my everyday life is with my students,” she says. “They need my affirmation. They need my care and support. Communion and Liberation has taught me that we all share these core needs to be affirmed, to be loved and to belong.

“When I can recognize people’s needs, I recognize that Christ came to fulfill those needs. For me, serving my students is Christ for them. And they’re Christ for me. That’s when I really experience Christ’s love.”

That need for connection runs deep in her generation.

“It’s important to provide us with a community,” Heinekamp says. “A lot of us might be living on our own. We don’t have a family nearby to go back to. A lot of the reason St. John’s is successful is because it builds community. There are a lot of social events. After Mass, a lot of us go out to dinner together.

“The reason you come back to a parish is because you like the people who are there. We need opportunities for friendship.”

(Visit the website www.indycatholic.org for information about events, programs and service opportunities for young adult Catholics in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

Local site Links: