"Are we open to listen to what they are saying to us?"

Pastoral leaders in schools and parishes throughout the diocese are looking for answers as to why an increasing number of young Catholics are weakly attached to their faith and disconnecting from the church. The trend and its implications are explored in the unprecedented national study, “Going, Going Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.”

The study found church disaffiliation to be largely a thoughtful, conscious and intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practice are seen as two options among many. Disaffiliation is a dynamic process that unfolds over time and after a series of experiences or thoughts.

Jesuit Father Michael Moynahan, pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Sacramento, and Patricia Kochis, principal of St. Ignatius School, both hope the church can learn from the lived experiences of young people who have disaffiliated from the church and design strategies they can implement in their parish and school ministries. They stress that pastoral leaders and parishioners should be open to being a community of dialogue where young people feel free and encouraged to be in conversation about doubts and struggles in their faith.

“There’s a question within the question of whether the parish community is ready to take on the issue of belonging as a faith community challenge,” says Father Michael, who is beginning his 12th year as pastor of the parish of some 2,500 families. He previously taught theology and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Santa Clara University and Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

“How prepared are people to change? Because the liturgy should change us, it should open us not only to the desires of the young, but to the dreams of elderly and all others in the community. As a teacher in universities for 30 years, one of the things that was most satisfying wasn’t what I could teach the students, but what I learned from them. That’s what kept me going back into the classroom, encouraging and teaching them not to be frightened by their questions, but to see them as gifts, as some of the treasures they have to share.

“So the challenge for us who are older, is how hospitable, how welcoming can we be to the questions of the young and their desires? The other challenge for us is what type of witness are we giving to them? Are we open to listening to what they are saying to us?”

Father Michael notes that the culture of American society which young people are imbued in presents a formidable challenge to faith communities. “The biggest challenge that young people are confronted with today can be captured in the image of the TV remote control,” he says. “If you don’t like what’s on that station, you change it. Our society and culture stress immediate gratification.”

Accompanying youth and young adults in the creation of a hope-filled future is one of the four apostolic preferences that Jesuits and Jesuit parishes throughout the world are committed to during the next 10 years. “We have made youth and young adult ministry a priority and it has to be at the heart of what we are doing,” Father Michael says.

For the past seven years, as the only parish staffed by Jesuit priests in the diocese, St. Ignatius has offered a ministry for and run by young adults in the Sacramento area, which is rooted in the Jesuit tradition. “So far it’s been very successful and we see it continuing to expand,” he says.

The ministry’s stated mission includes that leaders “are committed to creating a safe and welcoming space for young adults to grow in their faith journeys. We hope to nurture spiritual growth through education, prayer that is genuine, faith sharing, fellowship and service.” The ministry also notes it helps young adults grow spiritually by “engaging in faith sharing through the practice of accompaniment.”

Young adults plan and participate in all liturgical ministries at the 5:30 p.m. Mass each Sunday, and offer “coffeehouse” events where young adults share in fellowship and conversation about their faith. In addition, young adults are invited to attend a Caritas retreat offered by Jesuit Father Tri Dinh of Cristus Ministries (www.christusministries.org/), which empowers young adults and parishes to grow spiritually, change lives and transform communities.

Patricia Kochis, principal of St. Ignatius School for the past 19 years, will be sharing the results of the Going, Going, Gone study about the disaffiliation of Catholic youth with her 57 faculty and staff members. “Being aware of what young Catholics are thinking can enhance and inform their work as teachers and staff,” she notes.

The school, founded in 1954, serves 411 students from preschool through middle school. Hundreds of students and families joined in a celebration at the beginning of the school year in the grand opening of new multi-million dollar facilities. The structures replaced buildings which were more than 60 years old with facilities featuring state-of-the-art learning technology, science laboratories for both lower and upper grades, and spaces dedicated to the arts and languages.

The $12.2 million construction project, funded entirely by private donations, includes 42,000-square feet of classrooms and spacious meeting centers for the parish and community. The new facilities assist the parish in providing support for its many community programs, including feeding the hungry, providing health and wellness care, and offering services to immigrants and the elderly.

In a large parish such as St. Ignatius, “the challenge is not only to involve our younger members and engage with young adults, but to break down barriers so that people know each other’s names and know each other as neighbors and as family,” Patricia notes.

She was surprised by the study’s results that showed the median age of disaffiliation was 13 among young Catholics. She was encouraged that the clergy sex abuse scandal was not cited as a major reason why young Catholics disengaged from the church.

She is encouraged that middle school students at St. Ignatius School take such an active role in living their faith, such as through school liturgies and other activities including mission outreach, social justice efforts, and helping the needy in the community. “By doing this, they show their faith to the entire parish community and reflect their own perspective to others,” she says. “We need to listen to what they are telling us and if they have questions or doubts, provide a safe place where we can discuss with them how our Catholicism is a way of living and being.”

The results and insights of the Going, Going, Gone study will be the basis of continuing discussion in the parish and school, Father Michael stresses. “Many of our school parents are a bit older than the young adult range and some are young adults who share similar challenges as expressed by young adults in the study,” he says.

“As we see in numerous examples today, young people are capable of such great good,” he says. “We have to look at that, call it out and find ways to let them channel their beliefs. We are at a critical moment in the life of the church. This is a wonderful opportunity and not something that has to paralyze us. It’s something we need to be aware of and responsive to in our community.”

(In the photo above, Jesuit Father Michael Moynahan, pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, and Patricia Kochis, principal, visit with students on the campus of St. Ignatius School.)

Listen to Fr. Moynahan & Patricia Kochis on The Bishop's Hour


About youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/oyya

About young adult ministries at St. Ignatius Parish in Sacramento at www.stignatiussac.org/about.html

Catholic Herald Issue