Growing up Protestant, the path of life in church was a bit ambiguous. There was Sunday school (classes for all ages), youth group, singles group, and then a bunch of other evangelization ministries for your way to becoming married. When I became Catholic, that same rule of generality applied, and sometimes the line even blurred between youth and young adults. “Youth” seems to refer to anyone between the ages of twelve and eighteen, and “young adult” refers to “late teens, twenties, and thirties.” (Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, USCCB, 1996)
Young adult ministry has long been an uncertain phenomenon. Within the Church, there are often youth programs, but many parishes lack young adult outreach or only start to minister to them once they are married or out of college.
Many years ago, my husband and I were founding members of a thriving young adult community. A friend identified the need for more evangelization and community, and developed a three-pillar program to bring young adults together for social nights, faith formation, and invitations to prayer. Many of us were single or newly married, and we would spend our Friday evenings learning about the Church and playing lawn games around a bonfire late into the night.
When I came back to one of their faith formation nights after the birth of our third child, a lot had changed. Many of the once single, childless young adults were now married with children. While we discussed our faith, babies were crawling around the room, a young mother was nursing, and a toddler hid under her mother’s chair in the throes of potty-training rebellion.
My eyes fell on three young women crowded together at the end of one of the couches. They were engaged with the discussion but distracted. Their eyes darted about the room at the young mothers and the lively children. It was a good night, but when the hour and a half was over, I went home thinking about those young women at the end of the couch.
A few nights later, I asked my husband how he felt about inviting a few young adults over to our house to talk about the faith. So we sent some texts and a Facebook message to a few that we knew in the area—college age, career age, etc. That following week, we set up a small room in our home with some snacks, and waited to see who would show up. We hadn’t asked for RSVPs and had no idea what the night would hold. Our kids were in bed, so we left the garage open for guests to enter the house. And they did—all fifteen of them.
A room full of seeming strangers gathered around a table filled with snacks and proceeded to pour their hearts out. That night was busier than those five years ago, and I remember the most poignant question of the night: “Why are you here?”
The answers were all over the place. Short responses. Long monologues. Insecure laughter. Lots of tears. But the general theme was the same: every one of us longed for an authentic community for evangelization, somewhere to ask life’s deepest questions and to revel in a sense of affinity.
The years after that brought us back to that same room week after week. We never changed the format, other than reading a book or essay beforehand to discuss. We never knew who would show up or how long they would stay. There were nights where there were only six of us, and we would hang out for an hour or so, and there were nights where more than twenty-five people would show up and stay until the wee hours of the morning. Some young adults found their way to our home from right around the corner, and some came from hours away.
We had gathered together to find community, but we found more than that. We found a family.
We talked about the teachings of the Church and the longings of our hearts. Many of those young single men and women have now found their vocations of marriage, and one young man is now in seminary. Two of them got engaged in our living room, and I’ve lost count of the number of bridal showers and baby showers that we have celebrated in our home because of those vocations and our living-room evangelization. The young men and women helped me to mourn the loss of my mother and the loss of our fifth child. The beginnings of my husband’s call to the permanent diaconate were found in this group.
These two young adult groups, while similar, were vastly different primarily because of the setting. When we welcomed young adults into our home, we invited them into our reality, into the ethos of our family. I realize now that the lasting effect of our nights together were not the lessons that we taught, but the lessons that we lived.
Many nights, our young children would find their way out of their beds and knock on the door to the room where we were meeting. Instead of rushing out to try to usher them back to their rooms, my husband and I would often bring the child into the room with us and they would nestle in our laps while the discussion would continue.
One night, we asked the room, “When did you first witness authentic love, and when was authentic love distorted for you?” To our surprise and our humility, almost every person in the room said that the first time they witnessed authentic love was with our family. I remember going to bed in tears that night, simultaneously grateful that I could be surrounded by such great witnesses yet overwhelmed by the burden and privilege of living such a countercultural life of evangelization.
I think this is where the rubber meets the road. Cardinal Angelo Scola once wrote, “Moralism arises precisely from the incapacity to present things—marriage—as they are, or from a lack of faith that the other’s intelligence can grasp this reality. But things are the way they are according to God’s design, and this design has implicated man’s capacity to grasp its profound nature.”
Often we present young people with blueprints for living a life of holiness. If you do X, Y, and Z, then you shall arrive at sanctity and sainthood. Given the rise of the “nones” within our Church, it’s fair to ask, “How’s that working out for us?” The answer requires that we seek a better way of making the faith real and relevant for young people—a way that costs us something, but repays in full: We must invite them into the reality of a life of holiness. Lead with beauty. Show them holy marriages and families. Show them a beautiful liturgy. And when appropriate, we must invite them into the not-so-grand realities of the life of holiness too. We each must stand before the young person asking for proof of the love of God and extend to them the wounds of suffering like the risen Christ before Thomas the Apostle.
This is not a new approach. Bishop Barron often speaks of this type of evangelization with the example of baseball. If, in the beginning, he was handed a book of rules for the game, then his love for baseball might not have developed as it has. But seeing the game—smelling the grass in the air, watching the innings unfold, feeling every minute in that baseball stadium—made him want to know more.
Evangelization must be more than rhetoric and rubrics. We must each become incarnations of the kerygma. We cannot be consumed with learning the truths of our faith — praying all the prayers, and reading all the books—without then allowing those truths to change our lives. If we fail to do this, we will leave in our wake not people on fire with encounters with Christ, but people that resent the distant, rule-laden little christs that we have molded for them, inevitably filling them with angst toward the whole Church.
Arguably the best presentation on why you’re Catholic and others should be too will be found written in the images of your daily life.