By Diana Hancharenko, St. Angela Merici Parish in Youngstown, Ohio
"Anyone called to be a parent, pastor or guide to young people must have the farsightedness to appreciate the little flame that continues to burn, the fragile reed that is shaken but not broken (cf. Is 42:3). The ability to discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognize potential where others see only peril. That is how God the Father see things; he knows how to cherish and nurture the seeds of goodness sown in the hearts of the young. Each young person’s heart should thus be considered “holy ground”, a bearer of seeds of divine life, before which we must “take off our shoes” in order to draw near and enter more deeply into the Mystery.”
- Pope Francis (Christus Vivit )1
Young adulthood is the time where the flame of faith can be fanned to grow or extinguished by neglect or ignorance. Repeatedly, I hear stories of young adults who are curious about their faith and potentially getting involved in the life of the Church, but they do not feel they would fit in. If young adults see that their experiences or gifts don’t look like what they think a typical Church person should, or if they don’t have mentors or anyone to accompany them, they will often disqualify themselves, and either remain quiet and hidden or will simply walk away. Even if they see or hear about advertisements for young adult offerings or events, they may not think it is for them or their current needs. How do we open the door of possibility for each young person to encounter Christ, let their gifts shine and serve the community, and grow in faith and knowledge?
This “little flame” Pope Francis describes and the ability to see pathways where others only see walls and roadblocks are essential lenses in our parish young adult ministry. Often while searching for the typical and traditional means of practicing the faith, we miss discreet and less obvious ways of living out the Gospel that only require us paying attention and helping young adults to make connections back to Christ. Most young adults are already doing meaningful things with their lives between their careers, relationships, community work, and advocacy. They tend to care deeply about others and the world around them and have a profound sense of generosity and service. How can we work with those tremendous gifts to serve the people of God and show they are already on their way to Christ? How do we cultivate moments of encounter, which can lead to moments of catechesis?
At St. Angela Merici Parish in Youngstown, Ohio, we have been committed to intentionally accompanying young adults for nearly five years. Inspired by the Gospel, nurtured by the Eucharist, and growing in the spirit of Christus Vivit, our model is not the typical young adult ministry group. While we do come together for some young-adult-exclusive events and gatherings, the ultimate goal is to help young people take their rightful place in the larger Church. We hope to foster community among our young adults and encourage peer relationships to form, but a great deal of this ministry is one on one, getting to know each young person and their unique gifts, interests, and questions.
In Christus Vivit, Chapter Seven2 explores the notion of a “popular” ministry for young people, or a ministry that is of the people. This chapter calls for flexibility, new ideas, and open hearts in engaging young people in the life of the Church. This is something our parish has embraced, and our goal is to help young people apply their God-given talents where they can best serve in the present moment. We have young adults serving on our parish finance council and our pastoral council, young adults who are Eucharistic Ministers and lectors, and young adults who take on leadership of parish neighborhood initiatives such as cleaning up and restoring a city park in the backyard of the church grounds. Young Adult Ministry is not meant to be isolated or compartmentalized, but rather to be a doorway into fuller life in the Church. It is about fostering a sense of accompaniment and guidance so that every young adult realizes that they are not alone on their journey, that they are part of a community that values them. This allows us in the parish to tailor opportunities for encounter and catechesis, instead of a one-size-fits-all-young-adults approach.
Looking at the individual young adults in our parish, I see unique gifts and interests that need to be nurtured and respected. If I look closely at attendance for certain events and offerings, I can see a fluctuation in who is and isn’t there, and that is an important form of feedback. I cannot expect everyone to participate in everything because it is offered for young adults, but I can seek to create and curate variety in offerings as each person discerns what is calling to them. When certain service projects are offered, I can expect some individuals to come forward, and others will come forward for faith-sharing reflections. Some young adults are ready to serve in an ongoing ministry that meets or serves regularly, and others may not be able to at this time due to various circumstances. No matter their interest and availability, however, they are ours. They belong. We need them and God is calling them to be part of the Body of Christ.
Some parishioners or ministry leaders may write-off service projects or social events connected to the parish as unimportant or not catechetical enough, but oftentimes they are a gateway in to deeper community and encounter, which will allow them to step further into the life of the Church. Building relationships fosters trust, which then can lead into deeper conversations of faith where ongoing conversion and catechesis can take place. Our Catholic faith is rich in tradition, with various ways of expression, and our parish and surrounding local community have wonderful offerings that do not need to be reinvented just for young adults. Rather than needing to have all the answers or creating the perfect catch-all event, young adult ministry can be curated and facilitated, which does not make it less than other original and event-based ministries. The young adult minister does not need to always be the driving force, but it can pull in other leaders and bring them to acknowledge a sense of co-responsibility for accompanying and mentoring young adults.
My job as parish young adult minister calls me to build relationships, make connections, and advocate on behalf of young adults in our community. As I get to know young adults, I can make connections for them to mentors and other opportunities to serve and learn. I build relationships with other ministry leaders in our parish and encourage them to make room in their ministries for young adults to join, and I advocate for the inclusion of young adults in important projects, efforts, and decisions. As Pope Francis reminds us in Christus Vivit, “The world has never benefitted, nor will it ever benefit, from a rupture between generations”.3
So often I hear parishioners ask where the young people are and why they aren’t participating in certain offerings. I ask these leaders questions about what can be done to better engage young adults, such as adjusting the scheduling of meetings or events to be more inclusive of work schedules, extending personal invitations, and simply finding opportunities to be inclusive. I challenge negative stereotypes of young people and some people’s resistance to change, which at times can be a difficult, but worth the fight. This all helps clear the way for Christ to be encountered throughout our community.
Catechesis can also take place one on one. It is often that I will hear from young adults that they are interested in a particular faith topic and are looking for book, video, or podcast recommendations. Young adults have expressed interest in exploring different prayer traditions of our faith such as the Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, and novenas. We reflect on the Sunday Gospel together, which provides opportunity to look deeper into its context and its application in current times and for their own lives. The bottom line is that because I have a relationship with them, they can come to me for resources or conversation. They know that even though I may not have all the answers, I will always walk with them, and I will point them in the right direction, similar to how Jesus walked with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke.
How we seek to fan the flames of faith for young adults is so critical, as is the openness of pathways and discovery of their potential. We have been entrusted to the “Holy Ground” of their hearts, which is such a precious gift. We must walk with them in a spirit of accompaniment and make room for young adults to take their rightful place at the table. The gifts and abilities of each young adult are vastly different, but all are needed because they were created by God. Our parish young adult ministry is not perfect, but we are committed to the journey.
Questions for Reflection
How can the “little flames” of young adults be tended to and nurtured in your community? How can connections can be made from the good things they are already doing to missionary discipleship?
Where can young adults be more fully integrated into the life of a parish community? Where are there opportunities for generations to come together on an ongoing basis?
Diana Hancharenko serves as the young adult minister at St. Angela Merici Parish in Youngstown, Ohio. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Youngstown State University and earned a Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University of New Orleans.
In addition to her parish ministry, Diana serves as the chairperson of the USCCB’s National Advisory Team on Young Adult Ministry, and as a consultant to the USCCB’s Committee for Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth. Her passion for ministry with young adults and evangelization has led her to further service as a speaker, consultant, and facilitator throughout the country.