By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 6, 2017 | En Español
SMYRNA—Maria Moeakiola was one of the four women and three men huddled around a table, sharing their experiences as millennials in the faith.
From discouraging experiences about being overlooked at parishes to the importance of being with others going through common experiences—whether a first job, relationships or living on their own—this diverse group had one experience in common: being Catholic. They were African-American, white and biracial, ages 34 to 23. They were college professors and they worked in the building industry.
As the dinner plates were cleared away on Thursday, March 30, the group assembled at the Chancery of the archdiocese shared their views and priorities about being members of the Catholic Church.
The 23-year-old Moeakiola said, at its best, the church should be a community of believers, but often others her age are missing at the parish.
“I want to have peers within my faith, my social circles. It’s critical and crucial to every single age group,” she said.
Moeakiola joined the church during middle school. She expects to be confirmed at her parish, St. Francis of Assisi, Cartersville, at the Easter Vigil in a few weeks.
The evening experience of dinner and sharing with other young adults left her feeling motivated and encouraged. In fact, she carved out time to talk with her pastor afterward, to brainstorm about reviving a parish young adult group. The size of the turnout was a spark, she said.
The large conference room was filled with young people. The Office of Formation and Discipleship, who hosted the event, estimated 123 people attended.
“I heard multiple times, ‘I can’t believe how many people are here.’ I was feeling extremely motivated,” Moeakiola said.
Goal was listening to young adults
The crowd at the three-hour discussion represented believers across all races and language groups in the Atlanta Archdiocese. There were representatives from the Hispanic Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Lilburn, and women and men from the black Catholic parishes on Atlanta’s south side, St. Paul of the Cross and St. Anthony of Padua.
The evening discussion was the second event of a day focused on young adults in the Catholic Church, a growing number of whom are leaving the institutional church. It was hosted by the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship, in collaboration with Notre Dame University’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. The daytime session was for parish ministry leaders.
The evening was focused on hearing from the young adults. Individuals answered questions from a facilitator from Notre Dame. The questions asked about the gifts and challenges of being a Catholic and young adult, important elements of religious life, and what type of Catholic they hope to become. The groups around the tables talked among themselves about their responses. Later, with the large group split up, the tables had a broad discussion on issues and themes discussed in their answers.
The goal is to develop thoughtful strategies so parishes and their leaders can serve and attract young adults.
As it is, young people are leaving the church. Some 38 percent of millennials said religion was very important in their lives as compared with 59 percent of baby boomers, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
Participants shared observations of parish leaders giving them lip service because they cannot financially contribute to the parish. Others said when their ideas are offered, older people dismiss them and they are discouraged.
“Untapped potential” for parishes
“We desire mentorship from people who have come before us, to guide rather than block,” said Juan Pacheco.
Pacheco is in his mid-20s. He grew up in Marietta, with a father from Venezuela and mother with Irish roots. He is a seminarian studying for the priesthood. He spent the past year with the community at St. Clare Mission, Acworth.
He left the meeting optimistic.
“It was the first time as a young adult the church wanted to hear our voice,” he said.
Pacheco said at seminary he is surrounded by men close to his age, going through the same experiences. But the year spent at the mission showed him how unusual that is for his peers. Attending daily Mass in Acworth, he is the youngest person by 40 years.
“It’s a breath of fresh air knowing there are young adults journeying in the faith,” he said. Pacheco said his peers and church members have affirmed his vocation. In return, he looks forward to serving the faithful.
“The Catholic faith, we like to complicate it. I want to be a missionary disciple that lives the beatitudes,” he said.
The church and pastors could be helped if they saw the “untapped potential” of young adults and empowered them in their faith communities, he said.
For Karen Burke, a lifelong Catholic at St. Anthony of Padua Church, the evening was a sign of encouragement also.
“I really appreciated the number of young adults who were there from so many different parishes. It was great to see such a large crowd,” she said.
Burke, a college professor in her 30s, said it is important to her faith life to see all ages at Mass, but her commitment to the church is deeper than seeing who is in the pews.
“I would love to see more young adults closer to my age, but it would not necessarily be a deterrent to my attendance. I like to see peers at Mass, but I appreciate that there are people of all ages there,” she said.