The Challenge of Bringing Young People Back to the Church

Catholic Life and Evangelization staff members are, from left, Alexa Smith, Rick Dooley, Annie Sarlo and Maria Loch. (Photo by Paul Wirth)

By PAUL WIRTH Diocesan Communications Staff

About 23 percent of Americans say they have no religion, and the number continues to grow.

About half of Catholics age 30 and younger have left the Church.

For every person who joins the Catholic Church these days, more than six leave.

Those alarming statistics provide a challenge for Catholics everywhere: What can we do to bring young people back to the Church?

In the Diocese of Allentown several people work full time on the issue.

A new Commission for Young Adults advises Bishop Alfred Schlert on practical ways to improve and grow young adult outreach, ministry and evangelization.

Also, parishes across the Diocese are finding new ways to improve their youth and young adult ministries.

“Today’s young adults are the future of our Church,” said Emily Whalen of St. Joseph the Worker, Orefield, who is a member of the Commission for Young Adults.

“We are the current link in the long chain of believers going all the way back to Christ. Soon it will be our job to pass the Catholic faith along to the next generation.”

“It is truly refreshing and inspiring that our Bishop is so invested in our young people, the future of our Church,” said Sarah DeArment of St. John the Baptist, Pottsville, who also is a member of the commission.

Annie Sarlo, secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization, leads the effort to bring young people back.

“Even if they have left the Church, young people today have a spiritual longing, an emptiness that they want to have fulfilled,” she said. “We are making it a priority to find ways to provide what young adults need, and to invite them into a relationship with Jesus and back to the Church.”

The Diocese sponsors programs designed to appeal to young adults, and works with pastors and parishes to improve outreach to young people at the parish level.

“We’re finding that Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), teens and those without religion crave authenticity in their spiritual experience,” said Sarlo.

“They have a hunger for community. We’re working to show them how they can find those things among our Roman Catholic Family of Faith.”

Catholic Life and Evangelization Staff Leading the Effort

The people leading the effort to bring young people back to the Church work in an unassuming group of offices on the campus of Bethlehem Catholic High School.

It is hard work, fueled by pots of scratch-brewed espresso in their small kitchen, and by their shared love of Jesus Christ. They are the staff of the Diocese’s Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization.

Alexa Smith focuses on helping parishes build and improve their youth and young adult ministries. She works with parish youth ministers to help them be more successful, and if a parish doesn’t yet have a youth minister, she helps them get a program started.

For young adult ministries, Smith takes a more regional approach, meeting with small groups of young adults to solicit ideas for bringing young people back.

It calls for a varied approach: One parish designed a young adult program around the saints and their feast days. Another group decided to have a combination of religious talks and social events. Still another chose a community service theme.

Rick Dooley specializes in adult formation – helping adults grow in their knowledge of the faith and in their relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Christ calls all of the baptized to go out and evangelize their faith,” he said. “If you go to a restaurant you really like, you talk it up to your friends, and they are more likely to try it because of what you said.

“The Gospel is spread most effectively one-on-one, like Jesus did over his three years of ministry. We can learn from that.”

Annie Sarlo leads the team as secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization. A former missionary, she has travelled the world. After joining the Diocese, she put 50,000 miles on her car in one year starting youth ministry programs in Schuylkill County. She was appointed secretary recently.

“Our whole job here is to help parishes make disciples, who can then go out and make more disciples,” she said.
Sarlo urges Catholics everywhere to tell their stories. “Catholics can be afraid to share their faith,” she said. “Go ahead, break your silence, and go out and share, even if it’s just with one person.

Maria Loch, as the team’s administrative assistant, also plays a key role. “Having a teenager at home requires strong communication skills and openness to new ideas, and that applies to my work here as well,” she said.

A Conversation with Bishop Schlert

Why is it so important for the Church to reach out to young people?

“The young are the future of our Church. Our goal is to help young men and women become good parents and good spouses, because that is what enriches the Church. The family is our foundation, our DNA. There are some people who are very good at secular parenting skills, but they have no faith to pass on to their children.

“Another reason is that so many Millennials report feeling starkly lonely. They are looking for a connection to something real, and we can provide that.”

What are you personally doing to re-engage young adults?

“I consider it a big responsibility of mine to reach out to Millennials. Evangelization is a one-on-one proposition. It comes down first of all to a personal invitation, and I’m always looking for opportunities to provide those conversations and invitations.

“Maybe we meet for coffee. We talk about life, sports, politics. Over time, some trust develops, and then we can talk about God and where the Church fits into their life.

“I have conversations – scheduled and unscheduled -- like this with young people everywhere I can.”

If we did a better job at teaching children about our faith, would they be more likely to stay in the Church?

“The people we are trying to reach may have had sacramental exposure to the Church, and sacramental preparation, but whether they were truly evangelized in our faith is an open question.

“Based on their withdrawal or nonengagement with the life of the Church, I think the case could be made that we never did really evangelize them properly.”

What would you say to a Millennial reading this right now?

“I’d tell them, ‘Don’t rule out your life in the Church. There is a place for everyone, and there is a place of welcome for you here, too. Some of you are called to the married life, to the Priesthood, or to the Religious Life. Be open to anything. God is proposing to you.’

“My whole purpose as a Bishop is to help people get to heaven and recognize the salvation that is offered to them through Christ and the Church. I recognize that right now there is a credibility gap. That doesn’t change the fact that the Church is established by Christ, and it offers us all the means necessary for salvation.

“A shepherd wants his sheep to be nourished in the greenest, sweetest meadow there is. In my mind, that’s the Church.”