On any given Monday night, a group of young adults from all across Anchorage gathers at the John Paul II House adjacent to St. Patrick Church. Mostly in their 20s and early 30s, they are part of a thriving community based out of the eastside parish, and the focus of the work of John Barrientes, pastoral associate.
Since assuming his position three and a half years ago, Barrientes has grown a struggling young adult ministry with only a handful of participants into a lively community of approximately 130 people. They stay up to date on the group’s many activities and opportunities for social and spiritual engagement through social media and the use of an online app.
On a recent March evening, 12 young adults, equally divided between men and women, gathered for a half hour of adoration in the church chapel, before meeting in the cozy atmosphere of the John Paul II House for a thoughtful discussion of the recent pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops of Alaska, “Living in the Image and Likeness of God: Human Dignity and Divine Designs.” Some were parishioners, others first-timers.
Attendees shared candid thoughts on the culture’s view of marriage, stressing that society often pushes immediate gratification in relationships. One described right relationships as “not asking what can this person do for me, but what can I do for this person.” Others kept their thoughts to themselves, yet no one seemed uncomfortable or unwelcome. Each took time to introduce themselves and share a bit of their personal stories.
Margaret Holtz, director of youth ministry and faith formation at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, was not shy on her first night with the group, contributing thoughtful reflection to the discussion.
“My hope is that by being together…we can be open about our victories and struggles with life and faith, and in doing so, encourage and support each other on our individual journeys,” she said. “As a result of our time together, I hope that young adults build a new fire for the faith and are encouraged to evangelize out in the community.”
Barrientes echoed Holtz’s sentiments, seeing the gatherings as a way for participants to evangelize co-workers, friends and others.
The informal and welcoming aspects of the group meetings are further enhanced by “pub nights.” Approximately four times a year, these young adults gather at a local eatery. A speaker is usually invited to address a specific topic or lead a discussion on issues relevant to those seeking a relationship with Christ, or just curious about faith, morals and Catholicism.
The light-hearted atmosphere challenges patrons in “being bold, being joyful, being adventurous and seeking Christ with compassion,” Barrientes explained. “It is seeking conversion that is attractive.”
The Monday gatherings and the “pub nights” are ongoing opportunities to talk about relevant social issues, apologetics, bioethics and other interests of the participants. Praise and worship as well as opportunities for adoration are often featured.
While the group is open to any adult roughly between the ages of 18 and 35, it tends to attract single individuals, those of college age or working folks who, unlike married couples with children, are perhaps not yet tied to a faith community.
The intent “is to create authentic relationships,” Barrientes noted. “Throughout the week, people are getting together, creating community, growing in genuine care and love for each other.”
For each day during the Octave of Easter (the week following Easter Sunday) the group plans to gather at respective homes for meals and fellowship
So far the young adult group has resulted in six marriages over the last three and a half years. Barrientes met his wife at Saint Patrick’s and they recently married, he said. Others, men and women alike, are currently discerning calls to religious vocations and other callings.
Participants come for a variety of reasons, Barrientes observed.
“Some are on fire, some converting, some fallen away,” he said.
For many, a lack of relevant witnesses and mentors in the church has caused them to drift away. Sobering statistics on participation in a faith community show an 85 percent decline in church attendance among this age group. According to Barrientes, this indicates a spiritual poverty in this demographic, and, he added, “The church has a problem focusing on discipleship.”
A relative newcomer to the group, Noah (who asked that his last name not be used), has seen first hand how young people have left the church.
“Many in my generation are disillusioned by the church and you do see a large number of people my age, including myself, who have left the church,” he said. “However, there are certain things the church offers, like objective moral standards and a strong community, that draw some of us back in over time.”
In addition to growing relationships and sharing community, participants give of themselves through service events, such as preparing meals for Covenant House, volunteering at the Brother Francis Shelter and creating survival kits for the homeless. According to Barrientes, a core team of young adults has stepped up to work in the parish’s youth ministry program.
As St. Patrick’s young adult outreach grows, it is Barrientes’ hope that other parishes will be inspired to engage this demographic.