If you rebuild it, they will come

Father John Cusick When Father John Cusick got the opportunity to direct young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1977, he asked, “What’s that?” Cusick fought against attaching the term single, and he won. “The church doesn’t run a dating service,” he says. “We run an outreach to generations of people who are becoming less and less connected.”

It was only 40 years ago, Cusick points out, that young adults were the backbone of Catholic parishes and the lay movements that energized the church prior to Vatican II. Fast forward to today, and those same people are still ministering in parishes: “The older people just won’t let go, and younger people are still seen as kids,” he says.

Founder of the popular Theology on Tap program and author of The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry (Orbis, 2001) with Katherine DeVries, Cusick has spent years listening to young adult Catholics. It shouldn’t be that hard for the church to attract more young adults, he says. It all starts with a few basic principles, among them, ”Let’s be nice to people. I don’t think that’s too hard.”

What would a typical Catholic young adult minister hear from young people today?
For young adults the primary thing is always going to be relationships, whether they’re single or married. Second are issues of spirituality and spiritual identity, then personal development and work.

Twenty-somethings are very cynical as far as the workplace goes. The spiritual hunger in America is being driven by bad news from the workplace on two fronts. Many young adults are watching a fifty-something parent get wiped out of a job. And for themselves, it’s last one hired, first one fired. I can’t tell you the number of people who come and talk to me about going into the not-for-profit world. Why? Because the profit world is not feeding them.

One must approach this generation not with theology but with spirituality. When young adults talk about good preaching, they say: “Tell me how this stuff relates to my daily life.”

Why are we having less success reaching young people than the evangelical churches?
The evangelical churches have made young adults a priority. The Catholic Church has made systems a priority. People come second for us.

What do you mean?
A woman said to me one day, “My parish resembles a private religious country club.” Why? “It’s easy: Take out a membership, pay your dues, and you get perks.” What are the perks? “The sacraments,” she said. “They’ll marry you, baptize your kids, and bury you. But you have to belong.” When young people show up to get married, the first question they’re asked in most parishes is, “Are you registered?” Not “Are you Catholic?” or “Are you in love?”

The lack of the presence of young adults in the church is the elephant in the living room that everyone’s trying to ignore. We just hope we can find enough people to keep everything going. But who are those people? Usually in a parish there are two groups: senior citizens and families with school-age children.

Young people are looking to be part of something. The tragedy I see is that sometimes they’re not involved not because they don’t want to be, but because the system is against them.

How so?
Take scheduling. Many parishes schedule eucharistic ministers and lectors for three months ahead. Now imagine a 28-year-old couple with two kids—you mean to tell me that in the middle of February they’re going to know what they’ll be doing at the end of May? They just don’t sign up.

How many younger people who are not parents are catechists? Very few. Why? How many younger people will want to commit to something every Saturday morning from September to May? How do you get around it? Simple—you create a catechetical team for each class of kids, with a master catechist and a few younger people who will come and go.

People think it’s theology or the scandals that are pushing young people away, but it’s the system.

But surely some young adults have other issues with the church.
Until you find a place to call home, you can get very angry at Catholic ideology. However, you can live with this if you have a parish connection, even though the ideology is still in place. Take, for example, the creative Catholic people who come to Old St. Pat’s in Chicago and yet disagree with certain of the Catholic Church’s positions. But they’ve found a place to pray, a place to call home, a place to share life and concerns with others.

It’s pretty hard today to find anyone young who does not know somebody who is gay. Much of Catholic teaching on that issue doesn’t sink in for them. Will some people walk away because of positions like this? Yes, but my contention is that the spiritual hunger doesn’t go away. If we can offer people graciousness, perhaps when they need us, they’ll see that we are not a single-issue church.

Aren’t many young people suspicious of institutions in general?
Yes, but you still have to give people the best experience of the church that you can. I am the institutional church for many young adults. I can’t pooh-pooh the institutional church, nor do I want to. I have to present its best side. It’s working. We have an overflow Mass at 11:15 on Sunday. The proof to me is in the people.

What needs to happen for it to work?
The virtue of the new millennium is hospitality. Hospitality means you’re not judged first; instead you’re welcomed first. That’s the key.

One phrase that I have worked from is “Do nothing to add to the sorrow of a funeral or to take away the joy of a wedding.” That’s hospitality.

What else have you learned?
Young adults are more Catholic than they think they are. Catholicism to me is a blood type, not a religion of choice. Catholics still have one of the lowest rates of conversion, about 18 percent.

That said, it’s also true that every subsequent group of twenty-somethings is more secular than the group that went before them. The difficulty of the culture as I see it is secularity. A pastor, burying his third teenage suicide victim in one summer, said to me, “What kind of culture is it that allows its children to take their values from television?”

Does it bother you that young adults don’t know much about Catholic tradition?
No, what bothers me is that the church is saying they don’t, but is doing very little about it. One principle I use is, “Presume little, explain lots.” I’d love to see in the back of every church a brochure with pictures explaining every religious symbol there: the altar, the sanctuary lamp, everything.

We are a religion of symbol and ritual, and yet we have whole generations who don’t understand the symbols. Instead of critiquing these generations with a cocktail in our hand, let’s change the environment.

Would young adults care what an altar or the sanctuary lamp is?
If they had it explained properly, they’d have to care. I do not do a Baptism, for example, without taking time before the ritual to explain water, oil, light, and why we’re asking, “What name have you chosen for your child?” when they’ve been calling the kid the same name for six months already. Knowledge is power. You can’t keep people in the dark. We have to be teachers of the faith not just executioners of a ritual.

What do young adults ask you?
Young adults will come and say, “Father, why do I have to go to Confession?” That’s a good question, but it is a religious question. Religious questions are never life questions. Religion is a response to life. So what are the life questions here? On Confession the first is, “How do you get free?” and the second is, “How do you stay free?” Every one of us has baggage. And we have to learn to negotiate our baggage, or our baggage is going to possess us. The fifth step in Alcoholics Anonymous is essentially confession. If it’s good enough to stay sober, shouldn’t it be good enough to remain faithful? So I line up all the vehicles to get free that the Catholic Church provides. At the beginning of each Mass, for example, we call to mind our sins: Get the baggage out of the way. If you lay it out in response to the human questions, people will listen.

What other life questions are young adults wondering about?
“Father, do you mean to tell me that Jesus is jammed into that little piece of bread? Come on, off the record, Father. . . . ” But here’s the real question: “In a world where you can have anything you want, what do you really need?” If you have a credit card in your pocket with a $54,000 line of credit, you can go out and buy four cars if you want to. What do you really need? The bread of life—the Body of Christ.

Young adults ask constantly, “Will I be married?” The real question is, “Will I be loved?” Nobody has the right to be married, but everybody has the right to be loved. If you can get people to ask the right questions, they can see how our religion lays out a vision.

What I had to learn over the years is that I’m in marketing and sales. I have to listen to the target group, see how it lives, and then provide and explain the Catholic tradition as experientially as I can. I’m sort of a walking catechism.

So we need well-trained priests?
This is not the realm of the ordained. This is about well-trained leadership. Can the people running Baptism programs understand that they can’t be Attila the Hun when a young couple comes in and can’t make the baptismal prep class? We must put the burden of church work on us, not the people. We’re always telling people to come to us when it’s convenient for us. If they can’t make it, do we go out to them? Think what an attitude change that would be. It’s marketing and sales. One of the great marketers in the Western world was John Paul II. Or look at Mother Teresa. Who cared about her theology? She embraced the human condition. That’s what won the day.

The issue today in the church is how do you become mission-driven instead of member-driven.

But how do you find young adults who are not plugged into the church?
Word of mouth. Plus, new people come to church every Sunday.

Every time I preach, I talk to the stranger, the person who’s there for the first time. That changes my language. It makes me mission-driven in my preaching rather than member-driven.

People say, “In our parish we see the same people all the time.” No, you don’t. With active Catholic practice down, every Sunday people show up who are not there all the time.

At weddings and funerals you see all kinds of unchurched people. I had a wedding where there had to be 10 cross-dressers. My goal for the day was to speak to them, because I believe they are God’s children, not freaks. One of them came up afterwards and said, “Thanks.” They listened, because I spoke to the stranger.

With all that we spend on religious ed for children, why isn’t that producing more committed young adults?
We do not have a seamless way of staying in touch with people. There’s not one diocese in this country that has a pastoral plan for Catholic young people from adolescence to adulthood.

One young man described it as “living in a time between the sacraments”—between Confirmation and marriage. That time is spreading out wider than ever, and young people are less connected. If that second sacramental moment comes, they will not necessarily head back to the church.

Second, an increasing number of people do not have that second sacramental moment. That puts us at a great disadvantage. Thirty-two percent of marrying Catholics eligible to be married in the church are marrying outside the tradition. Of that same group, 90 percent are saying they will have their children baptized in church. So the place of marriage is becoming less important, but passing on the faith to the next generation is still very important.

What do you say to parents who are grieving that their young adult kids don’t go to church?
Sunday Mass is now an option—one of many. If you ask these young people, “Would you go to Mass?” they would probably say, “Under the right conditions, yes, I will because I’m Catholic.” Would they go with the regularity of their parents? Probably not.

As a church we have to see that they are not the enemy: They are our children. I’d say to parents: You have to invite young people to break bread with you at a Catholic experience that is life-giving for them and keep on inviting them. And if I were a parent involved in my parish, I’d lobby like mad to pass on the torch of ministry to the next generation. I spoke at a parish last year and I said, “I want you to find your own replacement. And it must be a person 40 or younger.”

Isn’t that unrealistic?
Not at all. I call it a “preferential option for young adults.” It’s a spinoff of the phrase, “the preferential option for the poor.” Sadly young adults are an option: We can do with them or without them.

But what would it be like if every Catholic parish said, “We’re going to go after people 20 to 40”? You would regenerate church life in two years. It’s that simple.

Some parishes say, “We don’t have young adults around here.” That’s a bald-faced lie. If you look at who’s inside the church building, you’re correct, but if you look at who’s in the community, that’s absolutely wrong. For one thing, married people with kids are young adults. Why not give all the dads a job? Let them be the Communion ministers. Once you start, it perpetuates itself.

Young married people always tell me they’re hungry for conversation with others like them. Every parish should have an activity for young couples. How will we stay in touch with married couples, with those baptizing kids? Right now we usually do nothing.

The church is pushing evangelization right now. Could that help?
My thesis is that the target of evangelization is our own young people. It’s simple: Look out on Sunday. Who’s there and who’s not there? You don’t need a research firm to tell you the answer.

The target for evangelization is the people who were born and raised Catholic, nurtured in the Catholic community, whose parents grieve for the fact that they’re not around with any regularity. If their parents know that, then everyone else knows about it, too. And nobody wants to do anything about it.

I don’t think they necessarily have an understanding of where young people are with their lives. They just want them to go to church. You can’t blame them. But for young adults, life is not neat and tidy. If we’re expecting perfection, you’re not going to have young adults around.

Don’t you get flack for pitching your work as marketing and sales?
It’s secular language for doing what Jesus did. I tease that I’m a peddler: I sell God for a living. I believe in that passionately.

You know, Jesus did not say, “Go and be the light of the world.” He said, “You are the light of the world.” The light is already within. I do not believe in giving people a God from on high but in pulling out a God that’s within. That’s as Catholic as it gets.

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