Year focused on young people bearing fruit: First phase of strategic pastoral plan wraps up this month

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 3, 2012

Last summer, the Archdiocese of Chicago launched its Year of Teens and Young Adults.

Now, as the first of four themed years of the archdiocese’s strategic pastoral plan draws to a close, the efforts to make young people feel more welcome in the church and help them connect to their faith and parish life are starting to mature and bear fruit.

The year started with efforts focused on World Youth Day in Madrid, held last August, and the World Youth Day “Chicago Style” held at Maryville in Des Plaines at the same time. Then parishes and archdiocesan agencies dug in and started doing the work they needed to make lasting changes in the role of teens and young adults in the life of the church.

“We had to make some structural changes first,” said Nancy Polacek of the Department of Parish Life and Formation.

Some of those structural changes involved finding ways for people and departments who might not have worked together in the past to come together in their efforts, as three agencies that work with young adults are doing in preparation for an Encuentro next spring. While all three groups work with young adults, their audiences and their offerings have been different, said Timone Davis, who coordinates ReCil: Reclaiming Christ in Life ministry.

“The biggest thing this year is that (the Office for) Young Adult Ministry, Hispanic young adult ministry and ReCil young adult ministry are working together,” said Davis, who was asked to head up young adult activities for this year.

The Encuentro works with a model that has been used in the Hispanic young adult community three times before. It calls on parishes and small groups to come together to prepare for the Encuentro itself, the culminating event. The process of preparation is as important as the event at the end.

It now is one of a series of events for young adults that all three organizations are promoting to their groups, starting with the May 24-27 Taize weekend at De- Paul University (see story, Page 24).

At the youth ministry level, the Office for Catechesis and Youth Ministry was asked to find five parishes in each vicariate that until now had not had active or vibrant youth ministry programs. The coordinators of youth ministry found 41 parishes who wanted to participate.

Over the months, about 13 dropped out because of staff changes or other circumstances, but another 20 parishes jumped in. Many of them are getting close to establishing a more active youth ministry program by sending someone to formation to serve in youth ministry or raising money to begin a program, Polacek said.

Parishes themselves had to take ownership of plans to increase the role and visibility of young people in their own communities, Polacek said.

“At the beginning, it seemed like parishes were waiting for a packet,” she said. “There wasn’t any kit. The momentum had to come from the members of the church itself.”

However, the archdiocese did offer some guidance on the kinds of things that are transformative for young people: spiritual experiences like retreats, service opportunities and incorporation into the life of the parish.

Part of the effort included recognizing that many young people already are doing the work of Christ, she said. One of the most meaningful parts of the year for Polacek was getting to know the young people she featured on the once-a-month radio show “Reflecting Christ’s Light.” (Available on podcast at

“There are kids from say 18 to their early 20s who are so connected to their faith,” she said. “Every one of them has a really moving story.”

As parishes and agency staff work to evaluate how the year went, some priests have noticed that there are more young people in the pews. But others wonder whether there actually are more young people, or if priests and other ministers are just paying more attention.

“Maybe they were there all along,” she said.

Polacek cautioned that numbers are only one way to look at it.

“You can see if you have more kids attending things or more things for kids to attend,” she said. “But there’s also the qualitative aspect. How did you change the faith lives of some kids?”

Davis said one important effect of the year is raising awareness of the need to bring young adults into leadership roles in parishes, and to actively look for ways to include them.

Of the three young adult ministry groups, Young Adult Ministry generally appeals to educated people, Hispanic young adult ministry appeals to single, Spanish-speaking young adults and ReCil appeals to young adults who are actively looking for faith formation.

“There are a lot of young adults who don’t fit in those groups,” she said. “I think we’ll catch more of them if we join hands than if we work separately.”

The work is far from done, she said.

“We haven’t solved anything,” Davis said. “What we have done is said we can be church better now. The youth are not the church of the future. They are church now.”