Recently, while in Rome, we asked a longtime Vatican journalist how she keeps her faith strong while covering the ups and downs of church life. She pointed to St. Peter’s Square behind her and remarked that “my faith isn’t lived out there.” She then added, “It’s lived out in my local parish.”
As readers of this column know, one of us (Elise) is a cradle Catholic and the other (Christopher) a convert. But both of us can attest to how essential strong parish life has been for strengthening our lives of faith.
For me (Christopher), growing up in a Protestant church, coffee hours after church were a regular function. It was an occasion where cross sections of our community could gather and continue our fellowship beyond the church service. It was, in some respects, a chance to build that culture of encounter that Pope Francis speaks about so frequently.
After converting to Catholicism, I was dismayed that my parish failed to offer anything similar. So, I urged our parish council to institute a wine and cheese hour after the Sunday evening masses.
It was here where I met not just other members of my parish, but my neighbors, as well. This would later lead to subsequent dinner party invitations, concerts and shows, art gallery viewings and, ultimately, new and true friendships.
Leaving a vibrant college campus ministry and transitioning to parish life at 22 was something of an adjustment for me (Elise). Beyond daily and Sunday Mass, it was hard to find support as a graduate student and later as young, single professional.
Parishes invest a good deal of time in educating young kids, supporting family life and taking care of the material needs of the local community. When it comes to single professionals between 21-35, many parishes offer a one-size-fits-all approach: a young adult group that meets once a month after Mass for some sort of social activity.
I have been incredibly blessed to attend a parish in the greater Washington metro area where being a single professional is the norm. The genius of this particular parish is that it engages its parishioners (more than 50 percent of them are between the ages of 25-50) with a variety of options:
There are adult catechetical series for those interested in study; small faith groups for personal support; a weekly event in which confession and adoration are followed by drinking at the local Irish pub (and the priests do come); and there are opportunities for local service and international mission trips.
The variety has been important for me, as the sacramental dimension of faith requires a social dimension. Even the most committed young Catholics need more than an hour alone in the pew to grow in their faith.
In the preparatory document for next year’s synod on young people, there is recognition that parishes must “offer events, activities, times and itineraries for younger generations.” These events and activities are a time in which the sacramental life is given a lived-out experience. But these events cannot merely be instituted from on high; they must take into consideration the needs and realities of young people.
That’s why we believe it’s critical for young people to be given a welcome spot on parish councils. The synod preparatory document affirms this too, noting that young people must be invited to “make their creative contribution and accepting their ideas, even when they appear challenging.”
It’s a practical and first step that parishes can begin to implement immediately — not merely waiting until after the synod process is complete. And it’s one that we believe will produce a welcome fruit for all ages to reap its benefits.
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Elise Italiano is executive director of communications at The Catholic University of America. Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.