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Fall Ministries: Books

Disenfranchised youth a parish problem

By By Fr. John C. Cusick and Katherine F. DeVries
Orbis Books, 240 pages, $25


A new book on youth ministry by Fr. John Cusick and Katherine DeVries is aimed at altering a bleak landscape.

The authors offer the following scenario as evidence of the need.

“Recently a bishop vesting for a confirmation ceremony received this unsolicited piece of advice: ‘Bishop, I want to suggest a new ritual for you to use at the end of the confirmation liturgy today. Invite forward one more time all those who have been confirmed and give each one a kiss good-bye.’ ”

As a recent college graduate who has attended Catholic parishes in four cities and two countries, this scenario didn’t shock me as much as perhaps it should have. In reading The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry, I dwelt on my own experiences of Catholic communities outside of college and found 20- and 30-somethings disturbingly absent.

So did the authors as they ministered in Chicago. They decided to do something about it, and their experiences in that archdiocese have made them experts in how to evangelize this potentially powerful, yet turned-off segment of the Catholic family. Though the book never once speaks of married priests and inclusive scripture language, their work could be the most revolutionary force to hit the Catholic church in some time if it proves successful in keeping young adults attached to the church. The authors show what can happen when programs attract the talented young believers who have not formally left the church, but have simply become non-participatory.

Following an introduction that leaves the reader with a solid understanding of who the target population is and what characterizes them as a special group within the church, the authors propose many possible approaches to drawing young people into active parish life. Young adults are defined as men and women in their 20s and 30s, married or single, creating a broad and diverse cross-section of people, one that initially seems unmanageable. Based on the authors’ wide experience, the book -- intended as an instruction manual for parish leaders -- offers proven plans that can work on the parish, regional or diocesan level.

One of the most successful programs discussed is Theology-On-Tap, a project of the Chicago archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry Office. Cusick is director of the office; DeVries is associate director. This program, involving speakers and discussions on topics of interest to young adults provides an environment where young adults can struggle, in the context of the church, with the questions and concerns they face. Weekly sessions, hosted by parishes, begin every year after the Fourth of July and continue for four weeks. The program culminates in a Mass at Holy Name Cathedral and a luncheon on the lawn of the cardinal’s residence.

The authors stress repeatedly that integration of young adults into our parishes is vital to the life and sustenance of the Catholic church in the United States. From that foundation, they begin to demonstrate the many ways a parish can respond to the needs of young adult parishioners. From creating a young adult group, to specific instructions for parish pastoral ministers, to connecting with parishioners who spend nine months of the year away at college, this book doesn’t just suggest what a parish can do, but outlines how to do it in detail, including what leaders should be sought, how many people are needed for certain tasks, and checklists for supplies. Despite this, the reading is easy, quick and enjoyable, if repetitive at times.

Among their many suggestions, the authors propose that parishes continue to involve college students when they return home during breaks. Parishes might celebrate a special Mass as students leave for school in August, sending them off with the parish’s blessing. Celebrations at the parish rectory at the beginning of the summer or Christmas break could welcome the students home.

Parishes might also retain ties with college students by mailing them the parish bulletin at school and keeping them up-to-date on parish activities back home.

After proposing many options for parishes, the authors outline what can be achieved on diocesan and regional levels. The guidance throughout is step-by-step and incorporates examples of useful tools, from databases, to sign-up sheets, to activity ideas.

Finally, Cusick and DeVries recount the history, successes and stumbling blocks experienced in building young adult ministry in Chicago from the late 1970s to today. That resource is valuable for a number of reasons. I found it a validation that the advice contained in the book has proved successful.

The value of this book can only be imagined at this point. As a young adult coming out of a strong college campus ministry program, I find that my re-entry into parish life has left me feeling lost. I miss having a church community. I was able to relate all too well to the observations Cusick and DeVries had about Catholics my age, and our experiences with the church. This book is not just another call to reach out to an area where the church is faltering. It shows what needs to be done and exactly how to do it.

This is one book I hope pastors, lay leaders and even young adults hoping to help their peers become integrated in the church in the years between confirmation and marriage, will read and act on. The authors acknowledge that integrating an increasingly senior church with its currently disenfranchised youth will not be easy for all parishes or church leaders. But I believe it is imperative that they take up the challenge.

My faith and the faith of my brothers and sisters may depend on it.

Paul Woody recently graduated from St. Louis University where he wrote a regular column for University News.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001