Will young adults keep faith? - Catholic Courier

Will young adults keep faith?

In her budding career as a children’s Irish-dance instructor, Mary Echter’s chief goal is to provide “a really, really positive place to get together.” Having experienced such an atmosphere through extensive involvement in youth ministry, Echter is keenly aware of the benefits.

“It’s really nice, in your teen years, to be in a totally positive environment,” said Echter, 26. “I’d like to spread the word to the whole diocese about my appreciation for the impact that diocesan programs have had in my life.”

Echter is not alone in her feelings: Anne Kidera Gallagher likewise links her participation in Catholic youth programs to her present-day role as a parish minister.

“I had a lot of blessings,” said Gallagher, 29, director of younger-generation ministries at Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta.

Meanwhile, Sue Versluys, diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, said she recently received an e-mail from one of her former youth-ministry participants at Spencerport’s St. John the Evangelist Parish. He told Versluys he had been named his town’s Citizen of the Year, and credited his youth-group experience for honing his positive attributes.

Now these former teens are seeking to pass along the traits they acquired. “I was exposed to a lot of mentors who had a great love for the church. And they entrusted me with the same mission,” Gallagher said. Echter added that her role as a dance teacher symbolizes her desire to “give back to the community, and be a positive influence on youth through whatever means possible.”

Many young adults attending a 2003 reunion of nearly 40 former members of the Diocesan Youth Committee expressed the same wish. Having come together in DYC to organize and lead diocesan youth events, they were moving on to careers with such ministerial links as teaching and working with troubled youths or the developmentally disabled.

Yet Gallagher observed that far too many of her friends don’t maintain involvement in their Catholic faith as they move into young adulthood. Though she’s flattered to be considered a role model for being deeply involved in the church, she remarked, “I just wish there were more of us.”

Many positives

Gallagher was an original member of the Diocesan Youth Committee when it formed in 1993; Echter served on the DYC in the late 1990s. Their involvement, along with retreats and parish youth-group events, provided vital life experiences at early ages.

“You had to get a huge group of people, who had never met before, to get along. You learn that people are all the same, and they deserve to be treated well,” Echter said. “You didn’t just say you wanted to pray with people — you really wanted to.”

Echter said the faith she gained as a high-schooler helped her overcome issues with alcohol early on in college.

“I was shocked at myself. It was a real, real struggle. In college it takes a lot of stamina to be good, and sooner or later, you wear out,” she said. “(But) having such a high standard of what was right, that at least gave me something to fall down from and come back up to.”

Without that foundation, she said, her post-college years could easily have been clouded by drugs, drinking and “caring a lot less about people. I’d probably be all about money.”

Gallagher and Echter credited other such influences as strong family support, Catholic high-school education (both are graduates of Brighton’s Our Lady of Mercy), and attendance at Jesuit colleges (Gallagher at Loyola College in Baltimore and Echter at Canisius College in Buffalo) for keeping them on positive paths. Gallagher added that she took part in the diocesan Synod in 1993 and is well-acquainted with Bishop Matthew H. Clark and many other diocesan leaders, contacts that proved valuable when she began her parish position in Henrietta seven years ago.

“I came in very well-networked,” she said.

Seeking understanding

However, Gallagher is concerned that few young adults — even those who thrived in diocesan youth programs — are taking active roles in parish and diocesan events. Indeed, current diocesan young-adult gatherings attract perhaps a few dozen participants whereas youth events draw in the hundreds.

Why do the numbers go down as the ages go up? Versluys observed that young adults are marrying later, and in a church setting “young people without children might not necessarily feel they belong.” She also noted a general distrust of authority among young adults, especially since the priestly sex-abuse scandal that began in 2002.

“Young people today have a strong connection with the spiritual and their faith in God. But they bypass the institution,” Versluys said. “A lot of kids are looking for black-and-white answers, and there’s a lot of gray.”

Keeping a strong Catholic foundation also can be challenging in the face of shifts brought about by college, starting a career and the separation from family and one’s home parish. Echter, for example, lived in Buffalo after college and only recently moved into Rochester’s South Wedge section. She attends church regularly and has begun conducting dance classes at St. Boniface Church on Gregory Street in Rochester, but does not belong to a parish. (Her childhood church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, closed last year.)

Shannon Loughlin, diocesan director of young-adult and campus ministry, said that young adults are actually quite willing to volunteer at parishes but might not be the best candidates for long-term contributions.

“Considering the mobility of young adults, you can’t guarantee or count on people being there 20 years. But you can still be welcoming. Part of this is helping people understand you may be only encountering someone for a year or two,” Loughlin said. She observed, for instance, that students at SUNY College at Geneseo are assisting area parishes with catechesis.

To help bring about greater understanding between age groups, Loughlin is preparing a DVD for parish use on the differences and similarities from one generation to the next. And, although her office sponsors young adult-specific events such as the Theology on Tap discussion series, her bigger priority is to integrate young adults into parish settings rather than isolate them, so they can connect with “the whole community and parish where there is a chance for lifelong involvement.”

Teens, meanwhile, have no shortage of opportunities created especially for their age group. Yet they, too, have sought more inclusive parish atmospheres since the diocese launched its “Gifted to Serve” initiative in the late 1990s. Through this effort, a sharp rise has occurred in the number of youths filling such liturgical roles as lectors, greeters and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

Gallagher, for one, is all for extending the same kind of welcome to young adults.

“We need to be involving them in the life of the parish, the whole church. I would like if our church was more attractive,” she said, adding that one way to bring that about is for parishioners to be outwardly supportive.

“If we were in touch with our own spirit, that would attract everybody. Young people are drawn to positive energy,” she stated. “I just get sick of, ‘Where are the young adults?’ That’s not going to make somebody go to church.”

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