PITTSFORD — Kathleen White recalled the time she saw the face of Jesus.
The first-year Nazareth College graduate student, who is a choir director for the college’s Catholic community, was on a service trip to New Orleans several years ago with fellow students to help with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The group lived in a band room of a school among cockroaches and squalor.
On the trip, they met a homeless man pushing a shopping cart with suitcases. Out of the suitcases, he pulled out a case of water to give to the students.
"He was giving it to us because we were working," White said. "That’s Christ right there."
White told her story of encountering Jesus during the "Young Adults Speak Out" panel discussion at the college Nov. 12. The young-adult panelists were responding to a Nov. 11 talk by Boston College theologian, writer and retreat leader Tim Muldoon on the topic of "Young Adults: Spiritual and Religious?" Muldoon works in the Office of University Mission and Ministry and teaches in the arts and sciences honors program at Boston College. He also has served as the inaugural director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.
Muldoon said many young adults today have revealed in a variety of surveys that they consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Yet in his talk, Muldoon argued that religious principles form the basis for spiritual beliefs. In exploring the topic, he asked four young adults active in Nazareth’s Catholic community to talk about how they became both spiritual and religious.
Junior Emily Orilio said that as a young girl living in Rome with her family while her father served in the military, an Irish missionary there was very influential.
"I was only 6 years old, but I saw that she had so much love within her for so many people," said Orilio, who serves as a Catholic sacristan at the college. "I wanted to be like her."
Megan Robinson, a 2006 Nazareth graduate who is youth minister at Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Thomas More parishes in Brighton, said her faith changed when she began to understand the Eucharist better through adoration and service.
"It’s great to do service, especially if it makes you feel good, but to enter into it through a community that is steeped with Catholic social teaching in the Gospel can bring you to a deeper exploration of faith," said Robinson, who also is a theology student at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
Robinson said she was raised Catholic and went to church each weekend, but she didn’t feel a strong connection with God.
"That was really until high school, when I had some health issues, and I began asking ‘why’ questions," she said.
It was through that experience that she began to develop a personal conversation with God and an active prayer life. But she drifted away from her faith until she took a class in college on the Holocaust.
"I wanted to talk about this within my own faith community," Robinson.
Muldoon noted that while there’s an assumption that families play a large role in a person’s religious upbringing, some researchers have found that formative experiences may play a large role in helping to foster faith and devotion to a religion.
"Religious education we just have not gotten right," said Muldoon, referencing Catholic young-adult responses to a variety of polls of about their experiences with church.
Muldoon said he doesn’t have any easy answers to the question of what model of religious education is most effective, but he said many Catholic young adults do not understand the rich tradition of Catholic symbols, art and architecture; have not studied Scriptures in their original languages; and are poorly versed in the basic beliefs of their own religion and other religions.
The transience of today’s young adults often is at odds with traditional parish structures, he said.
"In young people today, it’s not a lack of desire (for spirituality), it’s the uncertainty about what to do with it and how to channel it in a way that becomes, in a word, revelatory," Muldoon said.