Maryknoll accompanies and empowers young adult missionary disciples
You know, I’ve been really having a hard time trying to find my place in the Catholic Church… but Maryknoll has given me so much hope.” Receiving this text after a retreat, Maryknoll mission educator Luna Stephanie smiled. Connecting young people with their faith and the Maryknoll charism is one of her team’s goals.
For years, a common question has been asked in churches across the United States: “Where have all the young people gone?” Data published in 2019 by the Pew Research Center shows that four in 10 millennials (young adults born between 1981 and 1996) identified as religiously unaffiliated.
To discern how to support young people in the U.S. Catholic Church, Maryknoll held listening sessions and surveyed more than 500 young adults who stayed in — or left — the Church. Results showed that young adults are looking for examples of authentic faith that emulate the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel.
“What we heard resoundingly was a desire for community, a desire for a church that does the work of Christ,” says Anna Johnson, who leads the young adult outreach team within the Maryknoll Society’s Church Engagement Division.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused people of all ages to feel isolated, the Maryknoll Society launched the Maryknoll Young Adult Empowerment (YAE) Communities. This program engaged young adults in their 20s and 30s, from major five urban areas across the U.S., in a two-year accompaniment process.
Johnson says the program is based in Maryknoll’s charism. The communities are designed to support young adults as they practice leadership, deepen their relationship with God and discern God’s call. “Young adults are called to be missionary disciples, and have much to offer the Church,” she says. “Their voices are essential to listen to where God is calling the Church today.”
The dozens of members in this pilot program are professionals at the beginning of their careers: diocesan program directors, parish ministers, nurses, psychologists, artists and engineers. They are students, singles, married, parents. Many are already very active in the Church, while others are “threshold Catholics” who are discerning leaving but haven’t, Johnson says, “because they have a great appreciation for Jesus’ teachings, a deep faith, and appreciation for some aspects of the Church.” All of them are committed to making the world a better place.
Los Angeles community members John-Michael Rogers (left) and Alexis Salazar greet mission promoter Ray Almanza at the 2022 Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California. (Courtesy Ray Almanza/U.S.)
For Marisa Moonilal, 35, joining the Los Angeles community was the answer to a prayer. “I really had been searching,” she says. “Not only for a way to become more of a person of justice but also to find a faith community.”
“This community is one of the reasons I stay Catholic,” says Lauren Pusich, from Seattle. “Some of my first memories of the Church are the sex abuse crisis,” Pusich, 29, explains. “Reconciling being part of this wider Church when that is one of the first things that people think of. … Sometimes it feels like I need to justify being young and Catholic.”
She continues, “We need to have these spaces, where we can have these authentic and vulnerable conversations around … why we stay in our faith, and why our faith is such an integral part of ourselves.”
During the two-year program, cohort members go through the U-Theory process, which moves from an individual-centered approach to a group-centered one. They discuss justice issues such as economic disparities, climate change, homelessness, racism and migration. Each monthly session — conducted virtually during the pandemic — includes prayer, Bible reflection, faith sharing, leadership development and a presentation on Catholic social teaching and global mission.
“I love the monthly meetings because they help renew you,” says Silvana Martinez, 40, who migrated from Bolivia in 2020 and now works at Sacred Heart parish in Richmond, Virginia. “We support (our theme discussions) with Bible passages, and that helps me reflect on my journey.”
When young adults are heard, they are present. “They want to support the Church,” says Walter Hidalgo, a Maryknoll mission educator leading the YAE East Coast community. This space allows them “to figure out how their work-life correlates with their spiritual growth.”
Maryknoll Sister Euphrasia (Efu) Nyaki and Maryknoll Father Dennis Moorman (top right) lead a virtual retreat for members of the five YAE communities. (Courtesy Anna Johnson/U.S.)
The curriculum provides spaces for deep reflection to discern the movements of the Holy Spirit. It also provides practical tools to nurture emotional intelligence, servant leadership, storytelling and community organizing.
“You (and your peers) are able to work further because you have a support system,” says Ray Almanza, who leads Maryknoll’s empowerment community in Los Angeles. “You have somebody who holds you accountable, challenges you to continue growing.”
Pusich, the pastoral mission coordinator at Seattle’s Catholic Community Services, agrees. “The Maryknoll charism allows you to take your blinders off and to look and recognize the margins,” she adds. (From more perspectives from YAE members, click here.)
The YAE program helps develop young missionary disciples, says Maryknoll Father Joseph G. Healey, who has served in East Africa since 1968. “Our identity, what is our DNA, has to be mission,” he says.
The priest has advised the young adult outreach and empowerment team since 2018 and has accompanied the San Francisco community since 2020. Chaplains like Father Healey support each community. Their willingness to listen often surprises young adults who say they had negative interactions in church settings where they felt judged or dismissed.
Young people “are not bystanders. They’re part of the journey,” says Father Healey. He has spent over 10 years researching and writing about small young adult faith-sharing communities. All of this leads to responding to the baptismal call to mission. “It is faith leading to action,” he says.
After the San Francisco young adults discussed climate justice, for example, Father Healey asked, “So what are we doing about it?” Their responses ranged from picking up trash to researching solar panels to creating a plan to prevent wildfires.
As part of the program, members discern service opportunities that push them out of their comfort zones and toward the margins. Even amidst the pandemic, these young adults worked with survivors of human trafficking, people who are homeless, pregnant women in need, migrants and refugees, and others.
Carlos Villagomez, 25, an engineer working at Microsoft in Seattle, appreciates how his community encouraged his work toward social justice in the light of his Catholic faith. “I was confirmed three years ago now, so I was still trying to find ways to integrate my faith,” he explains. Villagomez has helped families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and has led a retreat using Maryknoll materials.
Members of the Seattle YAE community and Maryknoll Father Edward Shellito, chaplain (second from right), gather for a monthly meeting in 2021. (Courtesy Anna Johnson/U.S.)
The young adults are invited to participate in YAE immersion trips with Maryknoll. This year, these include visiting migrants at the border in El Paso, caring for creation in Appalachia and exploring economic justice in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
Community members also delve into the global charism of Maryknoll. For example, a missioner working in Kenya connected them with small Christian community leader Alphonce Omolo, who facilitated an international virtual encounter of young people. Coordinators say they are constantly working with Maryknoll to ensure YAE members feel part of God’s mission and the mission of the universal Church.
With Father Healey’s guidance, YAE coordinators engaged members in the Synod on Synodality, a Church-wide process of listening and dialogue. Some young adults were already involved in listening processes in their home dioceses; all look forward to the fruits of this “journeying together” as a Church. (To read about some of the initiatives out of the 2018 Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment, go to The Church Establishes the First Advisory Body of Young People.)
Having completed the two-year Maryknoll program, Moonilal will “graduate” and be commissioned with her YAE cohort in June. During this time, her community supported her while she discerned another career path. She now works at a nonprofit agency helping to resettle Afghan refugees. She got engaged in December, and says she will bring what she learned in Maryknoll to her marriage and future family.
“I think the witness of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is incredible,” Moonilal says. “I hope this program becomes more widely known.”
Young adults like these inspire Maryknoll mission educator Barbara Escobar. She leads the empowerment community in Chicago, formed by a small group of women of color with careers in ministry. “They’re very passionate about their role in the Church and finding ways to bring young people back into the fold,” she says.
So, where are all the young people? “Young people are still here,” Escobar says. “We’re eager and we’re ready to enact change. We’re ready to dialogue. We’re ready to dive deep into our faith.”
To apply to be part of the next YAE cohort, go to: https://tinyurl.com/YAEApply.
Featured image: East Coast young adult community members gather at St. Michael – St. Malachy Parish in Brooklyn, New York (l. to r.): Walter Hidalgo, Silvana Martinez, Miriam Hidalgo, Vanessa Garcia and Brandon Morel. (Courtesy Walter Hidalgo/U.S.)