Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Suzy Maurer claps during a retreat dinner for college students at St. Michael Church in Portland.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Suzy Maurer claps during a retreat dinner for college students at St. Michael Church in Portland.
On any given day, there are opportunities in western Oregon for young Catholics to mature in faith.  

Here's an example: Regis High School and St. Mary School in Stayton recently welcomed more than 1,300 students from nine Catholic schools throughout the mid-Willamette Valley.

During a Mass in the Regis gym, the youths learned that liturgy is far from dull, but is an event with cosmic ramifications in which God and humans meet. Main celebrant at Mass was Father John Amsberry, a 1982 graduate of Regis. Father Amsberry began his homily by tossing a football into the crowd as a demonstration of Jesus passing on God’s message of love. It's up to us to receive it, the priest explained.

Father Amsberry acknowledged that sometimes we may attend Mass and think it's “boring.” He asked the students to then repeat after him, “Mass is not boring. I am…,” which was followed by students’ laughter. The priest shared good advice, such as encouraging students to take notes during liturgy as a way to capture important messages.

“It was a spirit-filled event that energized both students and adults alike to celebrate their faith,” says Joni Gilles, Regis High School principal.

Taiko drummers from Sheridan Japanese Charter High School played before Mass, causing eruptions of delight in the crowd.  

An hour north in Portland, a college campus ministry team is trying to give the message that faith is relationship, not just rules. In a Victorian house just south of Portland State University, students study at a big sturdy table through the day and into the evening. They have lunch. Tea and cookies are always available, as are Catholic periodicals and pamphlets. Most of all, they ask questions about faith.

"People of college age are seekers," says Father Maximo Stöck, the campus minister. "They can find Christ is the answer. That's what we propose and we offer a safe environment to explore questions about life and God."

Father Stöck, an Argentinian who is himself only 28, says college students don't want to be talked into the faith, "they want to be listened into the faith."

One student asking questions is the son of a militant atheist. Others are Catholics who have stopped practicing their faith. Kate Huber, 23, fits that latter category. "This group affected my life in a powerful way," Huber says. "I was Catholic my whole life, but fell away. Then I found a really awesome community."

PDX Newman Center serves PSU students, but also those from Oregon Health and Science University and other Portland colleges.

"At the end of high school, I really wanted a faith community," says Suzy Maurer, a Portland State sophomore from St. Edward Parish in Lebanon. "Other people are searching. This is a good place for all of us to come."

At the start of the school year, PDX Newman held "Worship on the Blocks," a praise and worship concert in Portland's nearby Park Blocks.

"We really focus on evangelization," says Father Stöck, a member of the St. John Society. "We realize that on a secular campus like this, we can't just wait for students to come. We want to go out and announce the good news."

The ministry faces challenges from serving a secular campus in a largely secular city. Values contrary to faith are readily accepted here, they explain — sexual liberality, drinking, drugs and a focus on self-satisfaction.

"There is relativism reigning in this culture. If it feels good, it's right," says Sister Teresa Harrell, the campus ministry associate and a 36-year-old member of the Society of Mary.

The PDX Newman ministry has been growing. About 40 new students join the community each year. Others come and go, just exploring.  

There is a pro-life student group. This Lent, the center has been offering students a "spiritual workout," which includes meeting with a spiritual coach each week, 10 minutes of prayer each day with the Bible and 10 minutes of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament every evening. The center's website has some helpful links, like "How to pray better" and "Mass is boring?"

A major activity of PDX Newman is Fragua, a nine-week retreat that includes meals, talks and discussions designed to help youths make a definitive commitment to faith.  

At an evening dinner and talk, held in the basement of nearby St. Michael Church, the air buzzes with conversation and laughter. These young people have already made a retreat and are now following up, being strengthened to become evangelizers.

"It's going to be a fight," says Josh Jones, a young member of St. Patrick Parish chosen to give an inspirational talk. "It's not going to be all rainbows and butterflies." Jones tells the students: "The voice of the world is trying to pull you out."

Elizabeth Dorthalina, 30, volunteered at the dinner, which fed about 50 students.

"We live in a culture so distant from God," she says. "I like to see them go through really experiencing God. We are a very broken generation. We don't have much going for us if we don't have God."

For those out of college, several Catholic young adult groups meet regularly in the Portland area. These gatherings are not so much focused on creating zeal and evangelizing; the aim seems to be taking a faith life that's already established and sending it to the next level — serving the church.    

"Young adults have a zest for their faith and we are proud to be part of the Body of Christ," says Katelynn Kiefer, who coordinates the young adult group based at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. "There is no price tag for the importance of faith in our lives."

Regular gatherings at St. Cecilia draw 10 to 20 young adults. They share a meal, fellowship, prayer and lessons about the faith. They enjoy one another and laugh a lot. The evening runs like clockwork, with Kiefer winding the works. She calls them to prayer if they are dilly-dallying over dinner. During prayer, they offer petitions. Three are seeking employment and several have sick relatives. After prayer, they watch a Catholic Bible study video and discuss how one might live out the principles learned from scripture.

Young adults are at an in between age — too old for youth and college ministry but out of place at an adult ministry, says Betsy Ward, who moved to Indiana after two years as part of young adult ministry at St. Cecilia. "If you want the church to stay around, you would want to invest in the young adults," Ward says.  

"Adults without families who aren't students — that is a no man's land within the Catholic Church," says Troy Potter. At 45, Potter knows he's pushing the upper limits of "young adult." But he is something of a big brother in the Beaverton group.  

Some members trend traditional, some progressive. Like a microcosm of the Catholic Church, they stay together as one.

"We have constructive, healthy debates," says Erin McDermott, a 28-year-old graduate student. "There is a hunger for belonging."

Beaverton young adults join with members of Metropolitan Catholic Fellowship — a Portland-based young adult group — and others at occasional religion-themed talks at local brew pubs. Part of a nationwide movement, the sessions are called "Theology on Tap." Topics have included the New Evangelization, the "New Atheism" and faith and science. Members of the young adult groups also serve at places like Blanchet House.

Elizabeth Breshears, a 22-year-old graduate student from Eastern Washington University, came to Portland for an extended school assignment. In the young adult group, she found a home and is ready to serve — the parish, social service agencies, whatever. "Young adult groups are underutilized," Breshears says. "We are young and energetic."

Young adult members have brought a spark to St. Cecilia. McDermott and Kiefer, for example, directed a Pentecost play last year. Young adults also offered to babysit children while parents had a night out.

The four Catholic parishes in the Salem-Keizer area have been working together on young adult activities for more than four years. Catholic young adults meet monthly for Bible study at Broadway Coffee House in Salem.  

"Young adult ministry has been sorely neglected," says Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, a nationally-known speaker and a member of Immaculate Heart Parish in Portland.  He likes Theology on Tap, but says it doesn't reach young adults who have stopped practicing.  

"There just needs to be a better way of engaging young adults more seriously so that they see a deep and personal connection between the Catholic faith and their every day lives, so that they see themselves as intimate participants in the divine life of God," Burke-Sivers says.

He suggests events at parishes that include food, a convenient time, and topics that get at serious issues like moral virtue.