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Theology over a beer: Parishes adapt to bring youths back

| Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

Catholic leaders are getting creative in finding ways to bring young adults who've left the church back into the fold.

They use Facebook to organize Bible groups, and even meet in bars and restaurants to create the feeling of a congregation as "home" in a modern world that weakens ties to faith, church leaders say.

The biggest growth in young parishioners is occurring in the North Hills and South Hills, said Joyce Gillooly, Pittsburgh diocesan director of the Department for Youth and Young Adult Ministry. The demographics of each parish affect the level of young-adult and youth programming, she said.

St. Thomas More Parish in Bethel Park, for example, counts membership by families, even in single-person households. Of 2,781 families, single-person households constitute 29 percent of membership, or 802 people, followed by two-member families, 27 percent, or 752 families, figures from 2011 show.

St. Thomas More plans to form a young-adult program for parishioners ages 22 to 40, said Andrew Kurzawski, a seminarian, modeling it after a successful program at St. Bernard Parish in Mt. Lebanon.

That group sponsors activities such as visiting wineries, discussing current events with guest speakers at coffee shops, attending sports events and performing community service projects.

"We've really got to be attuned to getting them involved and making them feel like this is a place that they can call home," Kurzawski said.

Nick Ostronic, 26, joined Holy Trinity in Robinson about two and half years ago. A Franklin Park native who graduated from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in 2008, Ostronic felt a pull back to religion.

"Once I graduated, I really felt like there was something missing in my life, and I had recently started to go back to church again on occasion at the end of college," said Ostronic, a Robinson resident who works in information technology consulting.

Participating in the church's young-adult group's activities allows him to socialize with like-minded people, he said.

"We're starting to build our professional lives, but at the same time, we don't want to lose touch with our faith," he said.

Whatever works

On Tuesday, St. Bernard hosted Catholic Underground, which draws young adults from throughout the diocese, said Carl Stuvek, youth and young adult minister at Holy Trinity, whose young adults participate in Catholic Underground.

Modeled after a program that started in New York City, Catholic Underground moves among parishes each month and includes a holy hour with contemporary Christian music, silence and confession, followed by snacks and live music, Stuvek said.

This month's gathering coincided with Mardi Gras, giving organizers a chance to incorporate its themes into food and activities, he said.

Catholics from throughout the eastern suburbs meet once a month at the Rivertowne Pourhouse in Monroeville to discuss theology over appetizers and beer.

"It's just really nice knowing other people you can discuss (religion) with, without being shunned or run away from," said Lauren Gates, a youth pastor at North American Martyrs and St. Bernadette, both in Monroeville.

Gates founded the Pittsburgh East chapter of Theology on Tap less than a year ago. The group uses Facebook to organize meetings and accepts people of all Christian denominations to join discussions.

The group recently discussed sexual abuse scandals involving clergy, which drove some Catholics away from the church. The discussion included safeguards, such as checking backgrounds of volunteers.

"Everyone in the group understands that while this is terrible, you can't condemn the entire church," Gates said. "Maybe if this discussion hadn't happened, there'd be more people leaving (the church) now."

For many Catholics, the tradition of Mass -- dating back 2,000 years -- keeps them coming back, Luisi said.

Jason Zych, youth minister at St. Louise de Marillac parish in Upper St. Clair, which has 3,300 active parishioners, said some people are drawn to perform good works through retreats and mission trips, to help people in need.

"When they go, they encounter Jesus in a way that they've never experienced him before," Zych said.

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