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God and beer in the summertime


It is a hot, humid, late-summer evening in Evanston, Ill., an urban outgrowth of Chicago and home to Northwestern University. As the daylight begins to fade, 20- and 30-somethings wander into ice cream shops and hip little pubs. Summer school students glide past on Rollerblades or play soccer near Lake Michigan. It seems like a typical lazy, easy summer night.

But in the cool basement of the Sheil Catholic Center on Northwestern’s campus the atmosphere is more reflective. More than 80 young adults, participants in the Chicago archdiocese’s Theology on Tap program, deliberate thoughtfully and silently as they sit at round tables and write. Music by Christian singer Michael Poirer plays softly from a CD player in the corner of the room. Periodically, the clink of glass breaks the silence, as participants sip from cold bottles of Amstel Light and Samuel Adams during this 10-minute “reflection time.”

Jesuit Fr. Michael Sparough, the featured speaker at this Theology on Tap site, gave this group much food for thought in his presentation on decision-making. He encouraged them to reflect on their own decisions in the areas of friendship, career, prayer life and sexuality. After the reflection time, he invited participants to divide into small groups for discussion. Sparough encouraged them to share at a level of intimacy they are comfortable with. “Don’t put something out there that’s kinda raw,” he half-joked, provoking an immediate wave of laughter.

In his presentation, Sparough began with a brief biographical sketch of St. Ignatius, painting a vivid picture of a gambling, dueling, womanizing soldier who became a saint, and introducing the crowd to the Ignatian method of discernment.

“The basis of our decision-making,” Sparough said, “should be that I want what God wants. Sometimes we think of God as raining on our parade and taking away all the fun. It is an act of faith to believe that God wants not less life for us, but more.

“Who in this room doesn’t want to be fulfilled?” he bellowed. “God wants that for each one of us!”

Sparough spoke at the third week of Theology on Tap at Northwestern, and numbers at Sheil rose from 50 participants during the first two weeks of the program to 80 participants this evening. Both the topic and the speaker brought these young adults from as far away as suburban Naperville, nearly 40 miles to the west, and industrial East Chicago, more than 20 miles to the east.

“This topic cannot be more relevant for someone in their 20s and 30s,” said Max Crespo-Deynes, a 39-year-old product manager for Lucent Technologies, who lives in Naperville. “When you are done with school you face many hard choices. You look for anything that helps.”

Alina Mejia, 35, said she has heard Sparough speak “many, many times.”

Sparough, director of Charis, a young adult ministry for the Chicago Province of Jesuits, said that his decision-making talk is “back by popular demand.”

“Young adults know very little about St. Ignatius,” he said, “yet he offers some really good criteria for decision-making.” And the decision-making that characterizes a young adult’s life, Sparough said, can be “traumatizing.”

“They decide between celibate and married, consider career paths, children, sexual orientation. These are decisions that will determine the rest of their lives.”

That young adults will drive for miles to hear a Theology on Tap speaker comes as no surprise to Fr. John Cusick, director of Young Adult Ministry for the Chicago archdiocese and associate pastor at Old St. Patrick’s Church. “This is an age group that will drive all over town to see a good movie,” he said. The Theology on Tap Web site includes driving directions to all program locations. “Some people will go to a location that is closer to work than home,” Cusick said.

This summer 72 parishes, universities and organizations in five contiguous dioceses and archdioceses -- Chicago, Milwaukee, Joliet, Ill., Rockford, Ill., and Gary, Ind., hosted a Theology on Tap program during the same four-week period. According to Cusick, the second half of the summer is an ideal time for parishes to host this catechetical and evangelical outreach to young adults.

“There’s no competition. All the rah-rah partying takes place during the first half of the summer. College students are home, and there is no competition from the media.”

In Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Theology on Tap concludes with a Mass and picnic for all participants. The closing Mass in the Chicago archdiocese Aug. 11 featured a young adult choir, Cardinal Francis George as celebrant, and concelebrant priests who have been involved in the program. After the liturgy, young adults were treated to food, a disc jockey, and games on the lawn of the cardinal’s residence. Approximately 1,000 participants attended the mass, and about 800 moved on to the picnic, according to program coordinator Judi Black.

One parish in cooperation with other area parishes hosts the program, and welcomes anyone college age through the 30s, single and married. Reaching out to a population traditionally neglected by the Catholic church is one of the primary aims of Theology on Tap.

The evangelical and catechetical program for young adults began in Chicago in June 1981 as a response to a conversation between a priest, a youth minister and a college senior. The senior had begun to look ahead to his first few months in the “real world,” and had many questions concerning his future personal identity and fulfillment: “Will I be more than my job?” “What will it mean to fall in love?” “What does it mean to be Catholic?” “Where does God fit in with all this?”

That conversation evolved into a four-week summer program that now hosts 3,000 to 4,000 young adults each week for a speaker, conversation and theology. Theology on Tap is a trademarked program, and dioceses in 40 states have permission to host it, including Baltimore; Madison, Wis.; Los Angeles; Hartford, Conn.; and Atlanta.

“My hope,” said Kate DeVries, associate director of the Office of Young Adult Ministry for the Chicago archdiocese, “is that no matter where they are, young adults can connect with something that teaches them more about our faith. We never want young adults to hear from a parish that ‘there is nothing available here.’ ”

In every diocese

“My ultimate dream,” Cusick said, “is that for four weeks in the summer, every diocese will stop and open their doors to young adults and host Theology on Tap. What a sign to young adults that would be.”

Young adults who participated in the program expressed both hope and ambivalence about the future of their roles as active, participating Catholics. “I am hoping to see more how we fit into the church,” said Tim Mascarenas, a 23-year-old account manager who attended Theology on Tap at Three Holy Women Parish in Milwaukee, Wis.

“Young adults are a hard group to pin down,” said Dave Macek, a 37-year-old claims examiner from Milwaukee. “Most of us were born after Vatican II, and either weren’t born or don’t remember anything about the way the church used to be.”

Jeremy Miller, a graduate student at Northwestern, said, “As an undergrad at the University of North Carolina I used to get weirded-out by the young adults I saw at the Newman Center. Now I guess I’m one of them.”

Theology on Tap is in its 22nd year in Chicago, and people like Cusick are starting to see its long-term impact. “From our side of the fence we hear from people who haven’t been to church in awhile,” he said. “They are searching for a spiritual community and are beginning to have a sense that this might have some value for them, that there might be some payoffs.”

Other results of Theology on Tap have been more personal. “It builds community,” said DeVries. “People come to Theology on Tap knowing no one, and often make lifelong relationships. We have even been to people’s weddings who met at Theology on Tap.”

A hunger for community and fellowship are high on the list of reasons why young adults attend Theology on Tap in the first place. Paul Carrier, a 38-year-old culinary arts instructor living in Milwaukee, attended Theology on Tap at Three Holy Women to meet new people. “I went to these all last summer and now I’m back,” he said.

“You get free food, free beer, get to know people. Sometimes some of us go out afterward and have a beer,” said Chris Smith, a 38-year-old sales specialist. “And,” he added as he sat in the cool parish basement, “my apartment has no air conditioning.”

Tony DelGallo, a 30-year-old who attended Theology on Tap in Evanston, visited Sheil Catholic Center “to see people in Evanston I haven’t seen a lot of lately. This is also a good forum to talk about contemporary and traditional issues with a young community of believers, issues that are not discussed in most parishes,” he said. “In most church situations you hear people say, ‘This is the way it is.’ Here, it’s more of an open forum.”

Everyone here is my age

For those who may hesitate to come to a church in the first place, “It helps knowing everyone here is around my age,” said Corrine Scaglione, a 35-year-old kindergarten teacher from Milwaukee.

Theology on Tap topics include everything from “Temptation Island: Making Moral Decisions in the Game Called Life” to “Finding Your Place in the Church Today” to “What Do We Believe As Catholics?” Though the recent news of clergy sex abuse scandals does not garner its own topic, it is still on the minds of these young adults. The reactions and opinions to the sex abuse scandals and the bishops’ meetings in Dallas range as widely as do the individuals themselves.

“I followed the meetings in Dallas the same way I follow political conventions,” said Jake Greenwell-Grillot, 24, of Chicago. “Nothing is going to change. The survivors groups weren’t welcome, and the lay advisory boards don’t look too promising. The main problem is an abuse of power. I am having a harder time wanting to participate in church functions.”

Others are more optimistic. “Change is possible,” said James Greenwell, a 22-year-old high school teacher from Chicago. “The scandals have forced us to take a closer look at what is going on. We definitely have some work to do as a spiritual community.”

This is a generation of Catholics who have their work cut out for them. Their thoughtful, loyal presence and their participation at programs like Theology on Tap indicate that they are not only the future of the church, but its present reality as well. They have a lot to learn, and they have much to say. They are hungry for fulfillment, for community, for knowledge, and this is a program that, thus far, has fed them.

As Paul Carrier, a culinary arts instructor in Milwaukee, said, “I wish they had these going all year round.”

Renée M. LaReau is a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Kettering, Ohio.

Related Web site

Young Adult Ministry of the Chicago archdiocese

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002