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(Editor’s note: This story is the third in a continuing series about the challenges that young adult Catholics face, and the contributions they make to the archdiocese and the broader Church. See the first installment here and the second installment here.)
The stunned and positive reactions from Catholic visitors across the country always make Father Rick Nagel smile.
The visitors flock to downtown Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, national conventions, the Indianapolis 500 or an NCAA men’s basketball tournament and, looking for a church for Mass, they’re drawn by the convenience and beauty of St. John the Evangelist Church in the heart of the city.
Yet what creates the most lasting impression on the visiting Catholics is the number of young adults who are in church for Mass.
“With those visitors, every single weekend people will stop me after Mass and say, ‘What are you doing to bring young people to church?’ They’re blown away by that,” says Father Nagel, pastor of St. John. “I’ve had e-mails and letters from people about how it gives them such hope for the Church.”
Father Nagel shares that hope. He can also share the intriguing story of what St. John Parish has done to create an atmosphere where about 400 young adult Catholics attend Mass every Sunday evening, and where their youthful enthusiasm for their faith has helped to make an already faith-filled parish even stronger.
It’s a story that offers insights and suggestions to other parishes hoping to attract more young adult Catholics.
It’s a story that begins on a Sunday evening when the ever hopeful Father Nagel had his own doubts about whether young adult Catholics would show up for Mass.
On a late September Sunday in 2009, Father Nagel held his breath as he waited to see how many people would show up for the first 7 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. John’s—a Mass specifically targeted to attract young adult Catholics.
“We didn’t want to pull young adults from other parishes,” Father Nagel recalls. “We wanted to reach out to those who weren’t going to Mass or didn’t have a spiritual home somewhere else.”
About 75 people attended that Mass, delighting Father Nagel.
“It was a nice surprise. We had more than we thought we would get,” he says. “Now, it’s our largest Mass on the weekend. It probably averages 400 people. Ninety percent are young adults. There’s a lot of energy in that Mass, a lot of hope for the Church. We have 750 families in our parish, and about 45 percent of our parish is between the ages of 18 and 30. People will say, ‘I remember a time when we had no babies, and now we have babies.’ ”
The blueprint for building that strong base of young adult Catholics features some approaches that are unique to St. John’s situation. Yet there are other parts of the blueprint that can be adapted by nearly every parish. In its most basic and most important feature, the blueprint calls for a foundation of commitment.
Father Nagel credits that foundation of commitment at St. John to several individuals and groups, starting with Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein.
“Archbishop Buechlein saw the explosion of young adults in the downtown area, and he asked if St. John’s could be the hub of the archdiocese’s young adult and college campus ministry,” Father Nagel says.
In leading that initial effort in 2009, Father Nagel and the parish benefitted from the work of four members of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a national organization that seeks to help college students learn about Christ and the Catholic Church. The four members—recent college graduates in their 20s at the time—focused on the nearby campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
So did Joe Pedersen, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and an apprentice in that college’s Echo program that trains future catechetical leaders.
“Those four, Joe and I all came together,” Father Nagel says. “IUPUI is primarily a commuter campus. The students respond to anything that brings them together. We have a lot of non-Catholics who respond to that sense of community through a pizza party, a dance party, a sporting event. When they find that community, they ask questions. Then it’s not hard to have them enter into something more in-depth in their spiritual life.”
The parish also reaches out to young adult professionals who are seeking that sense of connection and something deeper in their lives.
“We find a lot of our single young men feel isolated,” Father Nagel notes. “They live alone. They have a career, and they don’t have a community they feel part of. That’s a dangerous place to be. We’re always looking out for these people.”
A recent outreach effort at Easter shows the creativity and the commitment that the parish makes in trying to connect with fallen away Catholics and other young adults.
During Holy Week, teams of parishioners distributed 500 Easter baskets to different apartments and homes in the downtown area. Each basket contained chocolate candy, a spring flower bulb, a card listing Holy Week Masses, a pamphlet that described the core of Catholic doctrine, a magnet listing St. John’s Mass schedule and confession times, and the book Rediscovering Catholicism by Matthew Kelly.
“We want to let fallen away Catholics and other people know we’re here, we’re local and we’d love for them to come join us,” says Megan Fish, director of evangelization and communication for St. John.
The baskets drew more interested young people to the parish. The distribution of Easter baskets also showed one of the defining qualities of the parish—the connection between its young adult members and its older members.
“The young and the older, traditional people are just a perfect blend,” says Dan Shea, a 65-year-old grandfather and St. John parish council president who helped distribute the baskets with college students. “Everyone works together.”
Shea raves about how the young adults helped clean the church after a recent fire, how they have worked on the parish’s 175th anniversary celebration, and how they join older members on the parish’s annual outing to an Indianapolis Indians’ baseball game.
“The younger folks are like our younger siblings,” Shea says. “They’re a joy to be around. They’re a blessing to St. John’s.”
Young adults at St. John appreciate that connection with the older generation of their parish. They also savor the community they have formed with their peers.
“A lot of the reason St. John’s is successful is it builds community,” says Erica Heinekamp, 29, a member of the parish. “There are a lot of social events. The reason you come back to a parish is because you like the people who are there.”
Invitations are often the key to connecting with young adults, whether it’s through Easter baskets, pizza parties, parish festivals or a welcoming introduction after Mass, Father Nagel says.
“When young people feel intentionally welcome, it’s an amazing response,” he says. “When parishes are really intentional about reaching out to the young, the young adults will come. They’ll be involved. But it takes an invitation. When you see that happening, you will see growth in young adult membership.”
At St. John, the invitation to join the parish is soon followed by another invitation when the young adult becomes a member of the parish.
“For a time, we had no young adult leadership in the parish,” Father Nagel notes. “Now, young adults serve on every committee we have. Our goal is to get them involved. We’ll think of an entry level job for them to get them involved. Our hope is to eventually bring all people to discipleship, but most of us don’t start there. We try to discern where they are and invite them to something more. It’s very rare that a young person will say no.”
They also seldom say no to someone from their age group.
“It’s very powerful when a young person has the courage to invite a peer to something,” Father Nagel says. “That’s how their involvement has exploded. They’re in the trenches. I’m not in the classroom. I’m not in the workplace. The growth has come from a friend inviting a friend, a co-worker inviting a co-worker, a classmate inviting a classmate.”
At 28, Andrew Costello has seen the power of that connection in the young adult community at St. John. He also views that welcoming approach as a powerful force for other parishes.
“Having youth in the parish who are active and invested will invigorate the parish and encourage other parishioners to recommit themselves,” Costello says. “Young adults are the future of the Church as most are settling down right now.
“I think it is also important for the youth in this day and age to stick together. Good friends who have good morals help encourage each other. It is vital for parishes to encourage young adults to come together, worship and engage in Catholic fellowship.”
(Visit the website www.indycatholic.org for information about events, programs and service opportunities for young adult Catholics in the archdiocese.) †