When Mike Sauter became director of Catholic campus ministry at SUNY Geneseo seven years ago, members of the college’s Newman Catholic Community attended Mass on campus. Now, due to a shortage of priests, students trek about 600 yards off campus to nearby St. Mary Church, which hosts the community’s Sunday liturgies.
"They feel a sense of ownership. They know it’s their Mass," Sauter said, noting that the students love attending the 5:30 p.m. liturgy in which they actively participate as lectors, altar servers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
But if one were to scan the congregation at the SUNY Geneseo Mass on any given Sunday, the faces peering back would not be those of young adults alone. Sauter noted that between 40 and 90 nonstudent parishioners also attend the Mass each week.
"(The nonstudent parishioners) love the vitality of the Mass, and they like seeing the young faces," he remarked.
Such intergenerational interaction is something Sauter not only finds valuable but also encourages, especially since becoming pastoral administrator last year at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, of which St. Mary is a part.
"Separating the generations is the most harmful thing," Sauter stated. "It’s important to meet the special needs of each age group, but isolation is catastrophic."
Sauter said becoming pastoral administrator of St. Luke has provided new opportunities for parishioners and SUNY Geneseo students to do more than just worship together. Students have become involved in the parish’s youth-ministry program and also teach faith-formation classes. Students and former students also are becoming more involved in the community surrounding the parish, and have begun such activities as volunteering with Catholic Charities of Livingston County through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Sauter said his parish connections have allowed him to help these volunteers find affordable housing and other benefits.
Integrating SUNY Geneseo’s young-adult Catholics into the local parish community was a good decision, Sauter said, because it is useful for the young adults and St. Luke parishioners of all ages to interact with and learn from one another.
"In a functioning parish, each generation can mentor the one right below them. If you take young adults out of the parish configuration, a gap forms. Once you lose that pattern, there can be a whole cascade of failures," he said, noting that faith formation is a process that requires continual deepening and maturation for parishioners of all ages.
"If high-school-aged students are not regularly exposed to conversation with those of college age, their opportunities for development are hampered," he continued, noting that in any community it is necessary for the generations to speak to one another meaningfully.
Hannah Schmidt — a SUNY Geneseo sophomore and Newman community member — agrees. Schmidt interacts with various generations of St. Luke parishioners by singing in the choir, serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion during the SUNY Geneseo Masses and teaching religious-education classes on Sunday mornings.
"I think it’s easier for the kids (in religious education) to learn when college students are their teachers. They think, ‘Oh, these are kids, too.’ Maybe it’s easier for them to understand each other," she said.
Shannon Loughlin, diocesan director of young-adult and campus ministry, said she believes young adults like Schmidt play a vital role in every parish.
"One of our most important roles as Catholics is our ability to speak to the world," Loughlin said. "In order to do that effectively, we must be able to speak from all age groups and all backgrounds. If we miss any group, we won’t be as effective."
Loughlin encourages parishes to take a look at their communities and see whether young adults feel connected to the communities at large. If they do not, she suggested parishes should start asking themselves why.
"One of the bigger things we need to do is look at how we welcome people into our communities," she said.
She recommended that parishes introduce special events that will interest young adults, whom she defined as those ages 18 to 40. She also advocated making an effort as a community to reach out to visitors of all ages in order to make everyone feel welcome.
"Encourage parish members to say hello to new faces. Every little bit helps," Loughlin said.
The Diocese of Rochester recognizes the importance of young adults in the church, she said, providing a number of opportunities for welcoming, bridging and integrating this age group into the larger Catholic community. For example, the Theology on Tap discussion series invites young adults to explore the Catholic faith in a casual atmosphere — usually a bar or coffeehouse. Each series is cosponsored by the diocese as well as a local parish or planning group, which is responsible for facilitating conversation with its young adults about topics that are of interest to them.
The diocese also makes use of new technology in order to better meet the needs of young adults. For example, the diocese now offers a Web-based pre-cana program available for engaged couples who live far apart, such as one local couple Loughlin mentioned who were separated due to military service.
As parishes work to integrate young adults into parish life, Loughlin said they should consider that the current generation of young adults has a different understanding of connecting to communities than did previous generations.
"The reality of young adults’ lives makes them more mobile," Loughlin said. "If they’ve just started working, they might need to put in extra time at an entry-level point. They might be moving from apartment to apartment. Their relationships are being redefined."
Having a voice
Alicia Carroll understands the concept of a mobile life. She and her husband, Tom, recently moved to Rochester from Connecticut and joined Church of the Assumption Parish in Fairport.
"(In Connecticut) we had a very close group of friends who met every Thursday evening for a Bible study/accountability group," Carroll said. "Having a core group of friends who share the same beliefs and who you can count on for advice or just an ear to listen to you when you need to vent is so important for people our age."
Missing this spiritual component of their lives after their move, the Carrolls decided to volunteer to start a young-adult ministry at Assumption. They shared their idea with Father Ed Palumbos, pastor, and Father John Loncle, parochial vicar, and they all decided it was best to start slowly. The Carrolls distributed a survey for anyone in the parish in the 20- to 39-year-old age range, inquiring about their interest in a variety of programs. Finally, a potluck dinner was held for anyone interested in learning more about the ministry. Although turnout for the event was low, the Carrolls have maintained and updated an e-mail list of about 30 parishioners and presented a meet-and-greet event on May 23.
Alicia Carroll said she and her husband believe this fledgling ministry will allow young adults to have a voice in the parish, which is something they say is very important.
"We believe that young adults are looking for specific qualities in a church, but their desires are often not heard for various reasons," she said, noting that young adults are busy and don’t always have time to volunteer in parish ministries where they would have a chance to voice their opinions.
In order for parishes to hear and respond to the desires of young adults, Loughlin said it is important for parishes to make a bridge that connects young adults to the parish community.
"Each part of the parish needs to be in dialogue with the others. We need to listen to individual stories about what keeps young adults in the church, and what brings them back after a break. It’s not just the priest’s job to make young adults feel welcome, it’s the job of every Catholic," she said.