July 6, 2018

A heavenly mission: Former aerospace engineer hopes to help young adults and parishes soar together

Michal Horace leads the Young Adult Initiative, a multi-parish, multi-state, $1.38 million effort being led from the peaceful monastic setting of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad amid the rural, rolling hills of southern Indiana. The initiative seeks to help parishes across the country inspire young adults to choose the Catholic Church as their home. (Submitted photo)

Michal Horace leads the Young Adult Initiative, a multi-parish, multi-state, $1.38 million effort being led from the peaceful monastic setting of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad amid the rural, rolling hills of southern Indiana. The initiative seeks to help parishes across the country inspire young adults to choose the Catholic Church as their home. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Fourth part in a continuing series
(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5)

Michal Horace remembers it as a defining moment from his first year of college.

It’s a moment that has helped shape his life as a Catholic ever since—a moment that could also form a foundation of what parishes across the United States need to do to inspire young adults to return to the Church and find a lifelong home there.

Horace was a freshman at a state university when he had a sudden revelation on the first Sunday morning he was there.

“I don’t have to go to church,” he recalls thinking, knowing that for the first time in his life that his parents weren’t there to tell him or remind him to go to Mass. Yet, Horace still got out of bed and headed to a Catholic church where he didn’t know anyone. There, the small yet defining moment happened.

“I felt very welcomed,” he says. “And once I started coming, if I wasn’t there, someone would miss me. They’d give me a call. And when I came back from a break, they said they missed me.

“One of the saddest things I hear from young adults is, ‘I went to a church, I gave my opinions at a meeting but no one listened, and then I left and no one missed me.’ ”

Horace paused before adding, “Without a doubt, young adults are certainly looking for community inside and outside the Church. So how can we help our parishes become more young-adult friendly and keep young adults engaged in the Church?”

It’s a question that comes at a critical time in the life of the Church, a time when “about 25 percent of our teens and half of our young adults do not sense that our Church is adept at listening to their lived situations,” according to a report from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

The answer to that question just might come from a multi-parish, multi-state, $1.38 million effort being led from a peaceful monastic setting amid the rural, rolling hills of southern Indiana.

And that effort is being directed by Horace, a former aerospace engineer who now dreams of leading people to heaven instead of sending them into the heavens.

‘What needs to be done’

That effort is called the Young Adult Initiative, an initiative that was launched at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad when it received a $1.38 million grant from Indianapolis‑based Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Saint Meinrad is one of 13 Christian institutions across the country—and the only Catholic one—that are part of the endowment’s nearly $20 million initiative focused on young adults and faith at a time when many young people no longer identify with any organized religion.

As the director of the Young Adult Initiative at Saint Meinrad, Horace has spent the past year selecting the 16 parishes from a five-state area—Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee—that will participate in the four-year program.

The 16 parishes include four from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis (see related story). The 16 also represent rural, urban and suburban parishes as well as those that are small, mid-sized and large, but they all have two qualities in common.

“We were especially looking for parishes that knew there was an issue, and they were ready to do what needs to be done,” Horace says.

He recently met with representatives of the 16 parishes for the first time, so the initiative’s process of determining how parishes can be “more loving and welcoming” of young adults has just begun.

Still, Horace has set one main guideline: “My job is not to tell them how to do ministry for young adults, but to accompany them and walk alongside them as they do that themselves.”

He has also set one main goal.

“We hope to improve young adult ministry in these 16 parishes, but we also hope it will inspire other parishes all around the country to do these things.”

The path from a great chapter in life to a great challenge for the Church

Leading this effort is not the plan that Horace envisioned for himself in his younger years.

“I certainly remember growing up playing astronaut,” says Horace, whose childhood coincided with the Apollo missions of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration that sent humans to the moon in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. “I think every kid during that time wanted to go into space.”

After earning a degree in aerospace engineering from St. Louis University in 1986, he worked as a civilian for the U.S. Navy in its aviation systems command, being involved in the management and training regarding Navy aircraft.

He describes those six years as “a great chapter in my life” which was filled with close friendships that continue today, but there was something in his heart that called him to do something different, something more.

“All during that time, I did youth ministry on the side, starting in college,” he says. “When I moved to Washington, D.C., with the Navy, I helped with youth ministry in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. When I was talking to friends about maybe not continuing in engineering, they suggested going into youth ministry full time. They saw that when I came back from a weekend retreat I was excited about that.”

In 1993, he returned to his home parish in St. Louis to become the coordinator of youth and young adult ministry. Four years later, his ministry took a turn toward the regional level when he led retreats at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. And in 2001, he headed to Oregon where he served in youth and young adult ministry at the Archdiocese of Portland.

All these different roles led him to be chosen in June of 2017 as the director of the Young Adult Initiative at Saint Meinrad. And he has a clear understanding of what is at stake at this crucial time in the life of young people and the life of the Church. He shares the haunting words that he heard from a young adult: I hope that the Church becomes relevant again in their lives.

“I’m hoping they haven’t given up on the Church, and they’re open to coming back and trying again,” Horace says. “We’re trying to minister to them again. It all starts with building community. We have to build trust and community with them. Pope Francis is leading the way. The challenge is to make that happen.”

A telling story

Horace believes it’s a challenge that must be met at the parish level.

“We’re striving for new and innovative ways to connect with young people. A big goal is helping parishes understand more about young adults, helping them understand more about ministry to young adults, and helping everyone in the parish understand the role they have in ministering to young adults.”

That last point is at the heart of the Young Adult Initiative’s just-beginning effort to connect more young adults and the Church, Horace says.

To emphasize that point, Horace shares the story of a pastor who set aside time at the end of a Sunday Mass to bless the youth ministers of the parish.

The priest asked all the adult leaders in the youth ministry program to stand. Then he asked the parents of the youths to stand, followed by grandparents and siblings. The pastor continued on, listing different categories of people until everyone in the church was standing. Then the priest said, “Now we’ll bless our youth ministers.”

Horace lets the story sink in before continuing.

“It was a way for everyone in the parish to realize they’re all youth ministers. In the same way, we want everyone in the parish to understand they all have a role in ministering to and with our young adults.” †

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