New initiative hopes to draw young adults into church

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A new program being built by Dominican University aims, in part, to help parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago foster the faith of youth and young adults.

The Emmaus Ecology Initiative is being funded with a $1.25 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Thriving Congregations Initiative.

It will allow Dominican’s Office of University Ministry and its theology and education departments to build a community-based system that will connect youth ministries, Catholic schools and parishes, especially those serving historically marginalized communities. 

“Emmaus is a story of disillusioned disciples as they walk away from the church — a story which mirrors the lived experience of so many young people today,” said Clodagh Weldon, professor of theology and co-interim vice president of Mission and Ministry at Dominican University. “It is also a story of encounter and accompaniment, a story of the risen Jesus who dares to ask them, ‘What are you talking about?’ That is ultimately what this project is all about.”

The Emmaus Ecology Initiative is an attempt to address the trend of young people leaving — or never getting involved in — their faith communities, said Elizabeth Young, advancement and communications coordinator for Mission and Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest.

“The idea came from the confluence of a few trends or forces working on the church in Chicago,” Young said. “We at Dominican are seeing the same trends facing the global church and the church in the U.S., especially with young adults. There are not as many kids coming to services that we plan, not as many people coming to retreats or to service projects. So we are seeing how we can reach those young people with high-quality programs before they get on campus.”

In a letter of support to Lilly Endowment, Cardinal Cupich noted the importance of collaboration in re-envisioning and renewing parishes. 

“I am grateful for Dominican University’s passionate and proactive spirit in cultivating relationships and making investments that will help our parishes and schools to meet the challenges of our new missionary age,” Cupich wrote. 

Under the initiative, Dominican plans to create two ministry “hubs,” one in the near west suburbs and one in the Pilsen/Little Village area. Those hubs will provide youth ministry programming and work with parishes and schools to help them develop their own offerings.

Dominican also will continue to work with the Office of Catholic Schools to offer formation and professional development to new or early-career Catholic school teachers, many of whom teach religion classes with little or no specific training, a project that started this past year.

“So many instructors graduate from university, and they are taught very well how to teach math or science or language arts,” said Melissa Link, director of Catholic mission and culture for the Office of Catholic schools.

New Catholic school teachers meet online with Dominican staff four times a year in grade-level cohorts, since teaching religion to preschoolers, for example, is different from teaching seventh and eighth graders preparing for confirmation.

Link said she hopes the new initiative will offer opportunities for teachers to grow in their own faith, which will help them model that faith for their students.

A survey that asks Catholic students about their spiritual lives has shown that students look to their teachers when it comes to faith, she explained.

“We want our students to strongly agree that God is present in their lives,” Link said. “That survey tells us that they are watching their teachers. Their teachers are role models, and kids are watching them.”

The Emmaus Ecology Initiative is designed to help everyone in parishes and schools who works with young people to better understand how to support and inspire them, from pastors to lay ministers to volunteers, Young said.

The initiative also will bring together small groups of pastors and parish staff to discuss challenges, brainstorm new ideas for their parishes, and reflect on their roles and practices.

“The ultimate goal of this is to help the parishes become more youth-centric,” Young said. “We often hear from young people that they don’t feel welcome, their contributions are overlooked, or religion isn’t relevant to their daily lives. We also understand that pastors trying to address this may feel alone or overwhelmed. This grant will allow us to create intentional spaces for professional ministers to explore the minds and hearts of the young people they serve and to contemplate creatively — together — the future of youth ministry and leadership in their congregations.”


  • dominican university
  • young adult ministry
  • youth ministry

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