Listening to young leaders in the Church

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced Jan. 25 that three young adults would represent the United States at the pre-synod gathering to be held in Rome from March 19-25. This gathering is an opportunity for the Vatican to hear directly from young adults ahead of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational discernment, to be held in October. The three delegates are:

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• Brother Javier Hansen, FSC, a Brother of the Christian Schools in the Lasallian District of San Francisco-New Orleans, currently serving as a high school religion teacher in El Paso, Texas.

• Nick López, director of campus ministry for the University of Dallas.

• Katie Prejean McGrady, a wife, new mother, youth minister and popular speaker from Louisiana.

These three provide a glimpse of the dynamic, energized talent out there in the range of young adults (ages 16-29) the Vatican is surveying ahead of this year’s synod. And in that spirit, Our Sunday Visitor sought to provide an even wider sample of notable Catholics age 30 and under in the United States, what animates them in the good work they’re doing and what challenges they see facing young people today.

Jessica Marsala writes from Georgia.

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Age:
25
Location: Chicago
Occupation: justice and peace associate director in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

In a field such as social justice, it can be hard, as Edith Avila Olea said, when “wins seem so incremental” and one’s advocacy can be “undone with the stroke of a pen.” She is driven by faith and love as well as the wisdom of both St. Teresa of Calcutta — whose idea that love is one’s only job — and Blessed Oscar Romero. As the justice and peace associate director of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, Olea sees her role as that of “just another gardener watering the plants set before [her] and planting new seeds others will grow.”

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“As Blessed Romero put it, we are workers not messiahs,” she told OSV. “This to me is great hope knowing that my work will never save the world, only Christ can do that. I just live the vocation I’m called to and try to trust that God will do his part, too.”

Recipient of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s 2015 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award for her work fighting injustice and poverty, Olea has experienced poverty firsthand, both personally and professionally.

Now, in her current role with the diocese — whether that be helping with a letter-writing campaign to fight hunger or building an immigration ministry, to name a few of her recent tasks — she said her “greatest priority is that in all that we do, we are accompanying the people who are hurting because of the injustices.”

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Age: 29
Location: Greensburg, Pa.
Occupation: Director of youth and young-adult ministry at Mother of Sorrows Parish in Murrysville, Pa.

Though many differences separate middle school youth, high school teens and young adults, in her ministry experiences — both as a youth and later as an adult — Caitlin Craig has learned that something shared by members of all these groups is their need and desire for good community, and to feel welcome and a sense of belonging.

“It’s my greatest fear that someone comes in, doesn’t feel welcome and then that is kind of their only opportunity to see the Church or to see young-adult ministry or to see the community in Murrysville,” Craig said. “So I always try to make sure that I greet everyone [both on the way in and out] just so that they know, ‘hey we’re here, and we really care about you and we want to get to know you’.”

In her ministry Craig also recognizes the importance of reaching out to other local parishes and Christian churches. She believes this generation of young Catholics are especially interested in tolerance and inclusivity, and that both Catholics and other Christians share goals in common when it comes to young people. She consults other churches about other activities they might be offering, especially when it comes to engaging the wide span of interests, life experiences and schedules of the people she serves. Any selfish desire to monopolize this ministry, she says, must take a back seat to glorifying God for “as long as they’re encountering the Lord I will support them in wherever they go.”

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Age: 21
Location: College Park, Md.
Occupation: Senior at the University of Maryland and co-chair of the college’s pro-life committee

Alisa Zacharia, co-chair of the University of Maryland’s pro-life group on campus, has attended the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., since she was in the seventh grade and served as an usher at the most recent Youth Rally and Mass for Life. “Going to the Rally for Life is a great way to get the conversation started, but it shouldn’t be just one day,” Zacharia told OSV in January. Among her student group’s many activities, they pray monthly at local abortion clinics and soon might volunteer at a women’s pregnancy clinic. “Young people need to hear this message in a different setting, maybe a place where they can ask questions in a more intimate way.” Realizing the younger the pro-life message is instilled the better, last semester Zacharia and a friend decided to take their advocacy with them on the road, giving talks about pro-life issues at local middle schools in the community and praying the Rosary with the students. “Fostering a culture of life is something we all can and should do,” Zacharia told OSV. “When we live in a way that supports the vulnerable, we reaffirm a culture of life.”

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Age: 30
Location: South Bend, Ind.
Occupation: Assistant director of evangelization at the University of Notre Dame

The two things that get Kayla August inspired each day are a love of God and working with “the students who are still discovering it.”

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“They’re so passionate, and they’re driven, and they have their whole life in front of them, and they have so much that they can do to make the world a better place and impact it,” said August, who not only works with Catholic undergraduate and graduate students, but also works with interdenominational, interfaith students and those who “aren’t already in the doors.” She added that her job also provides ample opportunities to sit and learn from the students who “called me to be the best of myself also, so that I can help them to find the best of themselves.”

She added, “I think in college [it’s] the first time that students aren’t being told they have to go to Church by their parents; they don’t have that check system, and they’re deciding for themselves what they believe and what it means for their lives.”

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Age: 27
Location: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Opinions staff columnist and editor at The Washington Post

Though she works for a secular newspaper and writes and edits columns on a wide variety of subjects currently on the minds and social media feeds of many Americans — some recent columns have discussed President Donald Trump’s nationalism, the fairness of the economy and the verdict of former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar’s trial — Elizabeth Bruenig doesn’t see her work as purely secular. Inspired by St. Augustine, who also helped bring about her conversion to Catholicism, Bruenig said that she likes “the idea of trying to shed some light for Christians who are wondering, well, where does faith fit into this [political or broader cultural] circumstance?”

With the help of her self-described “arcane speciality” — the background she developed when she earned a doctoral degree in religion and critical thought and a master’s degree in Christian theology — Bruenig incorporates elements of religion and spirituality in many of her pieces and, in doing so, suggests that the divide between the secular and profane is not clear cut and that religion is inherent in everything.

“I think it’s absolutely necessary to think about what is the good, and what is the good life, and to argue those things in strong terms, because they are what all politics is eventually reduced to anyway,” she said of questions like these that are often excluded from discussions about modernity. “So committing yourself to not talking about it isn’t going to let you escape the question. It’s just going to let you talk around it, and I think that introduces a lot of unclarity. So I try to clarify as much as possible, and that means going back to first principles on some level.”

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Age: 28
Location: Tucson, Ariz.
Occupation: Catechist at St. John the Evangelist Church in Tucson, label control clerk for Ventana Medical Systems Company

In trying to paint a portrait of today’s Catholic young adults, Ana Tapia points out something others often miss, that “part of the portrait would need to include those who do not wish to get involved or participate in any Church-related events,” she said. But those who are actively involved “are passionate, hardworking, innovators, creative [and] provide a different joy to the Church.” She told OSV that it is not enough to talk about only those who are actively involved in the Church and attend parish events or aren’t afraid to promote their beliefs using social media. Rather, care must be taken to recognize that, for many young adults today, so many other things, such as school, work, family life and relationships, have a hold on their lives, attentions and priorities.

Tapia is not only a catechist and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion to the homebound at her parish in Tucson, but she also was part of the diocese’s Encuentro preparatory team, in which she said she was able to experience a “sense of belonging to a bigger Church.”

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Age: 29
Location: Dallas, Texas
Occupation: Vice president of learning and development for Young Catholic Professionals’ national office

For the volunteers and members of the 16 local chapters of Young Catholic Professionals (YCP) nationwide, building community with each other and with Catholic professionals of other generations is vital. The community aspect of YCP is what originally drew Peter Blute, who in 2013 moved back to Dallas after living and working abroad in Rome, to the organization.

YCP, Blute said, seeks to help young Catholic professionals “work in witness for Christ” — its slogan — by growing their faith and their spiritual friendships. Ultimately a supplement to parish and diocesan young adult groups, YCP acts, he said, as “a channel or a conduit for them to plug deeper back into the Church” and their parishes, because many young Catholics don’t know how to embrace their faith and take advantage of the resources provided by the Church.

Blute helps manage and train YCP’s 350-plus volunteers on the best practices of helping their chapters to incorporate their faith in all aspects of their lives, such as encouraging members to pray on their daily commutes — advice amassed from the experiences of more well-established chapters and the mentors they bring in as part of their core programming.

“I think a lot of young adults today expect a big transformational moment in their life when they’re going to be knocked off their horse by a blinding light,” Blute said, referencing St. Paul’s conversion experience. “Whereas the reality is, like St. Francis de Sales said, typically our journey to the devout life is going to be like a rising sun where it’s just slowly getting brighter and brighter over time. So I think we have be to realistic about our expectations, knowing that we can take little steps each day, and we’re venturing forward still.”

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Age: 27
Location: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Author; associate at Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative; Ph.D. student in theological and religious studies, with a concentration on Islam and Christianity at Georgetown University

Unlike many young adults of her generation, Jordan Denari Duffner discovered her vocation early — something she said Pope Francis regularly promotes and which she hopes young adults take to heart. As a junior in high school, she said her family received an anti-Muslim chain email. It was a defining moment in her journey of helping Catholics and Muslims — more broadly, all religions — better relate and dialogue with each other and to see the opportunities in religious diversity rather than the challenges.

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“I feel like the message could have been directed at any community, and it would have surprised me,” she told OSV, “because I was brought up in a [Catholic] community that, on the surface, was supposed to embody all these sorts of values about welcoming the stranger and openness and love, and then this is what you’re forwarding in your email?”

Duffner, believes that engaging in an interreligious “dialogue of life” — which can look as practical, simple and ordinary as “sharing our joys and sorrows, living our ordinary life together” — doesn’t just help Catholics to understand other traditions, but also can help them understand and deepen their own faith. “I think we dialogue first and foremost by opening ourselves to others,” she said.

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Age: 24
Location: Pearl River, La.
Occupation: Worship leader, singer, songwriter

While earlier generations might believe most millennials to be lazy, apathetic or self-entitled, singer/songwriter John Finch knows better. A millennial himself, Finch has traveled the country listening to the stories of those with whom he shares his music. “A lot of people look at our generation and think we don’t care. A lot of people just think we’re kind of ungrateful and spoiled, all of those things — just not into worship, not into Church, not into the ‘Jesus thing’ for lack of a better word,” Finch told OSV of the millennial generation, which he also describes as having a “fresh spirit” and “fresh energy.”

Finch said the songs he writes and performs — “Wildfire,” his debut album, released in 2017 — are the result of prayer. “I felt like my prayers to God, my prayer time was when I would write. So basically my writing would basically be prayer, time spent with God, and it was a way I connected to him; it’s the way that I felt in tuned to the spirit, in tuned to God, what he was doing.”

While some of the songs he has written are personal in nature, Finch said they’re “not so personal that it excludes other people, because I know some other people are walking through some of the same things that I’m walking through and struggling with and going through.”

“I love writing songs of praise and worship, so I honestly desire to write songs for the Church in whatever that looks like and whatever that means,” Finch said. “It’s not a specific age group: It’s just songs that people can pray with, songs that people can relate to, connect with — but ultimately just songs that can encourage people on their walk of faith.”

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Age: 27
Location: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Coordinator for resources and special projects in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection

Drew Dillingham must encounter suffering daily. As part of his job, he says that he responds to emails from victims and survivors of abuse, conducts child youth protection trainings in dioceses and researches how the Church can continue to progress in its ability to prevent abuse, respond to allegations and support victims and survivors.

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“My heart aches after reading letters from victims/survivors who have lost their faith, or after hearing from people who have left the Church or won’t join the Church because of the abuse scandals,” Dillingham told OSV. “My motivation is to open wide the doors to Christ for all who have been affected by these crimes, and to prevent that door from being closed again. I hope my work brings people closer to Christ’s love and the Church.”

Dillingham’s work also has impacted his own faith, he says, because he not only gets to hear from those who, though personally affected by such crimes, have stayed in the Church. The gravity of his work also has necessitated that he spend more time with God in adoration and prayer. He said that young adults today also need to accept the challenge to “know our faith, live our faith” and be prepared to defend it in a hostile world.

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Age: 30
Location: St. Charles, Ill.
Occupation: Priest for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., “carpool karaoke priest”

Known for his role in the “Carpool with Bishop Malloy” YouTube video — which garnered not only 608,633 views but also publicity in parts of the Americas, India, Italy and even the Philippines — Father Kyle Manno said that he hopes those youth who have seen the video “realize what a joy it is to truly give up everything for the Lord.”

“In that car singing songs were three priests — one of them being a bishop — and none of them look like men who’ve lost their joy,” said Father Manno, who studied music education in college. “Rather, in their death they discovered true life.” As a result of the video, Father Manno has received numerous questions about the Church, some that he himself likely asked as part of his own vocation story.

“For the first time in my life my ears were open, and I was actually hearing the truth,” Father Manno said, recounting how, during college he met a priest in love with the Church and his vocation, who helped this cradle Catholic find the answers he was seeking.

“I started to realize that the Catholic Church did not want to remove my joy or my fun as a person, but rather the Church wanted to increase it and teach me who I truly was.”

According to Father Manno, the current generation of young adults, whose sense of innovation he later described as their greatest strength, seeks to discover truth and what’s right, even if that means “going against the flow.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid to question our faith, because something will not stop being true just because we inquire about it,” he said. “St. Augustine once said that the truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself. Therefore once we seek the truth, it will consume us in the most beautiful way.”

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Age: 26
Location: Fort Wayne, Ind.
Occupation: Executive director of Those Catholic Men

What started as a “passion project” more than three years ago for a group of Mount St. Mary’s seminarians and their mentor, Father Brian Doerr, has turned into an nonprofit institution that has helped thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic men alike to lead more present and productive lives, free from the snares of modernity. As executive director, James Baxter wears many hats: He acts as business manager, is among the many who produce content for the site, and helps fundraise, among other tasks.

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The former seminarian, who was a part of Those Catholic Men from the very beginning, said the heart of their ministry is a program developed by the Mount St. Mary’s group called Exodus 90 — an intense 90-day retreat of sorts for men, which challenges them to devote more of themselves to God by denying themselves the things that can be distracting, such as alcohol or televised sports.

“What we care about at Those Catholic Men is expressed in a concrete, actionable road map in Exodus 90; It’s not OK to just look at the world and see problems and be cynical. ... What we take very seriously is that we’re a part of the problem,” Baxter said. “And when we can do that, we can be truly free men. The things that we’re involved in are going to win, and the people we’re in relationship [with] are going to win, and we’re going to find ourselves in a better state as a Church than when we started.”

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Age: 25
Location: Cheverly, Md.
Occupation: Assistant editor of Education for Justice

As assistant editor of Education for Justice, a project of Center for Concern, Anna Misleh helps to inform readers about the many social justice issues prevalent in the world, including human rights abuses and mass migration, and their solutions found in the teachings of Catholic social tradition. Her work, which involves publishing, marketing, social media, speaking at conferences and many other tasks, seems a natural fit for one who as a child attended marches in Washington, D.C., discussed injustice and politics at the dinner table with her family, and in high school and college went on service trips to places such as Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Vietnam and Rome.

“My parents never shied away from the hard questions my two brothers and I would ask,” Misleh told OSV.

“So as I got older, I was comfortable continuing to ask those messy questions about faith, injustice and what I saw in my community, nation and world.”

Such “messy questions,” Misleh said, aren’t new. “The writings, arts and individuals connected to this tradition have seen all of these struggles and more,” she said via email, later noting how Catholic social teaching dates back to Jesus and continues today with Pope Francis, whom she also said “checks a lot of boxes for what the young adults in our world crave in our global leaders — honest, moral, empathetic, intelligent, welcoming and humble.”

For a generation that she describes as continually “bombarded with messages of instant, quick communication and individualism,” Misleh believes Catholic social teachings, especially solidarity, to be the answer.

“It is long-lasting commitment and a genuine moral concern for another person,” she said, one that requires awareness of injustices and creativity to respond.