Lauren Fischer sings along during the evening Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland. The parish is a hub for young adults in the city, at least partially due to the outreach efforts of the St. John Society. Young adults are active in the parish generally and as part of The Ark young adult leadership team. (Courtesy The Ark Facebook Page)
Lauren Fischer sings along during the evening Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland. The parish is a hub for young adults in the city, at least partially due to the outreach efforts of the St. John Society. Young adults are active in the parish generally and as part of The Ark young adult leadership team. (Courtesy The Ark Facebook Page)
“Where are all the young people” is a question Ricky Shoop hears regularly as director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland. It’s a flawed question, he said.

“The problem isn’t general,” explained Shoop. He does not think that one generation is defective.

“The real problem is you’re not asking where are Robert and Susan and Jeff or Becky or whatever,” he said. “You’re missing the bus because you’re not concerned about individuals. The fact that you don’t know their names [means] that you don’t have any kind of relationship of trust where you’d invite them into a life of discipleship.”

Young adults today, as Shoop suspects has long been the case, respond best to a personal invitation to lead a holy life followed later by offers to connect them with serving others.

“We’re called to be saints, we’re not called to be Marthas,” said Shoop, citing the Gospel story of Jesus visiting two sisters, one who scurried about the house working while the other sat at the feet of Jesus and listened.

Regardless of the size, budget or location of a parish, the elements of reaching young adults is the same. After all, the apostles didn’t have budgets and the saints and martyrs didn’t have youth ministers. Shoop said the key is to show up and take an interest in young people.

“You have to meet people where they are and proclaim the Gospel first,” said Shoop. Young adults need the context of the core convictions of the church before beginning a life of service.

There may be some concern about commitment from millennials, but Shoop thinks that can be the same with anyone, no matter their age.

“If you give them the right kind of challenge — humans — they’re wired to still commit to something they’re really passionate about when the why is really clear,” he said.

Invitation and support

Tom Mitzel moved to Portland from Montana in the fall of 2016 to take a job as a tax accountant. Mitzel, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland, grew up in a large Catholic family.

As a member of The Ark young adult leadership team at his parish, Mitzel focuses on spiritual outreach. Every Sunday, he finds the new people at Mass and introduces himself.

When asked to pinpoint the moment he decided to volunteer with the parish, Mitzel can’t exactly remember. He suspects it was when the pastor from the St. John Society reached out to him.

“They ask you to do something at some point and you start helping and then you’re kind of just there,” said Mitzel.

The priests from the St. John Society make sure people are invited to enter the life of the parish.

Father Ignacio Llorente, a St. John Society priest and the pastor of St. Michael, said he doesn’t have a specific plan to reach out to young adults. He does what he would with any person of any age.

“If I want someone to be part of a team or do something, I personally invite them and tell them why I thought of them,” he said.

In Portland, the priest sees a need for community among the many young adults who are moving in from other places. “They need a space of belonging.”

That may be why young adults are being drawn to parishes with more young adults.

Father Llorente encourages young adults in his parish to participate heavily in service before they start having families. “Now that you have more time, give it away,” he said.

Monica Wuertz, 28, is a project engineer for a general contractor. She grew up in Kansas and moved to Portland three years ago.

Living in Southwest Portland, she’s found a parish home at St. Michael.

“Finding St. Michael was a blessing,” she said, adding that the strong presence of young adults in the parish makes a tremendous difference.

Having such a strong peer support group helps in “sharing faith and beliefs but also doing things together.”

Wuertz has been helping with the Alpha program at St. Michael. The program is based in evangelization with additional parts catechesis, small-group sharing and prayer. Wuertz is now working on The Ark team, leading service projects.

The hesitancy that Mitzel may have had about volunteering was tempered by the fact that there are so many young adults involved at St. Michael.

“When you see there’s a good chunk of people doing it, you dip your toe in,” he said.

Mitzel enjoys helping out at the parish, calling the work he does with The Ark team joyful.

“It’s so rewarding in its own ways,” he said.

The young man encourages other millennials to get involved, especially if life is going well.

“Volunteering is one of the better things someone can do. You’re not doing it for you. You’re doing it for God.”

Just do it

Katie Giles is a 28-year-old native of Newport. A cradle Catholic, she’s always been involved in a parish. Now it’s St. Mark in Eugene.

Giles said her mother was devout and so her family was the first to show up at any church event and the last to leave. She was raised with the expectation that she was there to work and serve. That’s carried on into her adult life. She now works at Catholic Community Services and has helped with youth ministry at her parish, where she also is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. She led the formation of a young adult group in Eugene.

“I see a need and I just do it,” said Giles.

Giles would tell other young adults not to be afraid of committing to volunteer work.

She herself at times feared she wasn’t qualified to commit to helping out or that she wouldn’t have the time to follow through with her commitments. Being qualified doesn’t really matter, Giles said. And as for lacking time, if young people are going to have to miss a commitment once or twice a year, that’s OK.

“It’s OK to commit and have things come up,” she said. “Be flexible.”

Giles counters the notion that millennials aren’t involved.

“I can easily name a dozen people my age who are out there doing stuff,” she said. Some are helping in choirs, working in youth ministry, assisting the elderly, leading seminars.

Giles encourages parishes to reach out to millennials in the pews and ask them to get involved — not once but many times. Young people being asked may not think they’re the right person for the job.

“If that person gets asked multiple times, the sixth time they might say yes,” said Giles.

Evangelization

Ann Brophy is pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Medford. She agrees with the concern that millennials aren’t as involved in the parish as one would hope. But it’s not just a lack of enthusiasm that keeps them from participating, she said. It’s their absence from the church entirely.

Brophy is always asking young adults in the church to get involved.

“But they have to be here to be asked,” she said. And she doesn’t see many of them at Mass.

That said, there’s a solid group of millennial volunteers at Sacred Heart. In fact, the parish has been providing marriage prep to 14 couples this year. But still, it’s bringing people into the church that Brophy sees as essential to getting the young adults volunteering.

“The evangelization piece is so important with millennials,” she said.

Alan Stout is a 33-year-old father of two, a building supplies salesman and manager, and a member of St. Alice in Springfield.

Stout is a convert who entered the Catholic Church when he was in college in Minnesota. After college, he pursued a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Everything to do with music and liturgy “felt like it was my natural calling from God,” he said.

Stout now leads the chant schola at St. Alice, which sings during extraordinary form Masses.

When Stout and his wife first showed up at the parish, their family was the only one with babies, he said. But something providential happened when a man at the parish, Rodger, welcomed them.

“He just made us feel welcome every step of the way. He told us we belonged there, and our children belonged there. He was so insistent on that.”

The greeting “spoke volumes about real hospitality in the parish,” said Stout.

Finding answers

Giselle Arbaca, 22, was baptized Catholic as an infant but rarely attended Mass until she was 17. She was invited to participate in a retreat with a Marian lay prayer community and had an encounter with God. Now, volunteering while starting graduate school at the University of Oregon, Arbaca helps to lead the Marian lay prayer community, Children of Mary Most Holy, at St. Alice.

Her devotion to Mary and God opened more doors. She is part of the schola and teaches religious education.

“I see it as doing God’s will in my life,” said Arbaca. “He just leads me where he wants me to serve him.”

Arbaca sees a brokenness in her generation. Small children aren’t getting the education they need at home and families aren’t making God a priority.

Communities can begin by pushing young adults to be holy and find the answers to their problems — addiction, depression, anxiety — in the church.

“When they find that answer, everything else will come after that,” Arbaca said. “They’ll have a desire to serve the church in whatever way God’s calling them.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org