Amanda Bolanos, an apprentice at St. Pius X Parish in Portland 2018-20, is flanked by Sr. Dorothy Radoli and Sr. Angelicah Njuguna. “My faith has grown so much — and in Portland, which they say is the least churched part of the country,” said Bolanos, part of a Notre Dame study and service program. (Courtesy Amanda Bolanos)
Amanda Bolanos, an apprentice at St. Pius X Parish in Portland 2018-20, is flanked by Sr. Dorothy Radoli and Sr. Angelicah Njuguna. “My faith has grown so much — and in Portland, which they say is the least churched part of the country,” said Bolanos, part of a Notre Dame study and service program. (Courtesy Amanda Bolanos)
" The bottom line: We need to create a space so they can help parishes. " Deacon Kevin Welch Director of pastoral ministries for the Archdiocese of Portland, on the need to have young people on parish staffs
Catholics long have wondered how to attract and retain young adults in parishes. According to the Pew Research Center, the average age of an adult Catholic parishioner in the United States keeps rising. In 2007 it was 45. By 2015, it was 49.

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and the Archdiocese of Portland have teamed up to do something about the problem.

For the past two years, the archdiocese has hosted recent college graduates who are part of Notre Dame’s Echo graduate service program. The young apprentices come from many colleges and serve for two years in parishes, live in Christian community and do master’s level theological study toward a degree from Notre Dame. The goal is to create young leaders who in turn will help parishes fulfill the spiritual needs of young people.

About 70% of Echo graduates enter parish or diocesan ministry.

“It’s a win-win-win,” said Jason Kidd, who leads youth and young adult ministry for the archdiocese and serves as the archdiocese’s contact for Echo.

Apprentices get experience and a modest stipend; parishes get a full-time passionate young staffer for a fraction of the usual cost; the archdiocese gets pastoral ministers with master’s degrees who may stay on and help the local church serve young people better.

“We don’t really know how to engage the young church,” said Kidd. “They are primarily absent within our parishes, with some key exceptions. They often say, ‘That doesn’t speak to me.’”

Kidd suggests that parishes treat Echo volunteers, and other youths, as advisers, especially on how to communicate with the faithful and the rest of the world. The generation arrives with a technological skill set that elders may lack, Kidd said.

“If your apprentice looks at the parish bulletin and says, ‘I’d never read this,’ then you may need to make some changes,” he added. “My hope is that these young people will help the church speak to their peers.”

Nourished by community

Amanda Bolanos spent two years as an Echo apprentice serving at St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland. Grateful for what she calls a beautiful experience, she gained confidence in speaking about faith and now is doing advanced theological study at Duke University.

Like most Echo participants, Bolanos felt that study alone was not enough. She wanted to serve among the people of God and sought pastoral skills. Her work in St. Pius youth ministry, visits to the homebound and formation of Catholics-to-be provided rich learning and strengthened her convictions. She listened to the frustrations and joys of believers.

“My faith has grown so much — and in Portland, which they say is the least churched part of the country,” said Bolanos, a Boston College undergraduate who studied philosophy and political science.

Like many college students, Bolanos took a hiatus from religion after high school. But Boston College campus ministry revived her. Finding a faith community of peers was vital for her return to Catholicism.

That’s one of her main ideas for parish life: Young adults must be able to form genuine communities where they can discuss doubts, fears and delights.

Bolanos said St. Pius X is a good model — youth and young adult groups are well-advertised and create many ways for young people to become involved in parish life. They are sacristans, choristers and lectors.

Prayer and personal relationship

Bolanos learned the hard way that ministers must keep up a spiritual and relational life and not let work supplant prayer. The current Echo students in Portland, three women who live near St. Clare Parish in Southwest Portland, make sure to pray together regularly and reserve one night per week for community togetherness — dinner, games, outings.

That communal practice models what parishes can provide for young people, said Lexie Wasinger, an Echo apprentice serving at St. Clare.

“One of the most important things about parish life is the community,” said Wasinger, a graduate of Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

She meets young adults who say they are spiritual but not religious. She urges them to consider the communal part of the faith as essential.

In a related idea, Wasinger suggests that parishes provide a way for young adults to pose challenging questions and get honest answers.

“We are doing a disservice if we just answer every question with, ‘This is what the church teaches,’” said Wasinger. “We need to seek genuine answers and focus on the personal relationship with Christ as well as church teaching.”

Beginning with love

Parishes would do well to reflect the news of God’s boundless love to young people, said Ally Rudd, who began last month as an Echo apprentice at Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton.

“I think young adults constantly are being told, in one way or another, that they need to earn respect and earn love,” explained Rudd, who holds an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame. “They are being assessed on academics and on their presentation of themselves in social media. It’s as if they need to prove to us they are worthy of love and attention. That is not how Christ did it. Young adults are not told enough about the unconditional love Christ has for them.”

Rudd, who grew up Catholic in Olympia, Washington, experienced a faith turning point at a massive youth conference while in college. “I was really blown away by the beauty of the church in a new way,” said Rudd, a longtime competitive gymnast. Seeing so many other enthusiastic Catholic youths inspired her. Before that, she had felt isolated in faith.

“Sometimes I think we young adults show up to parish life and don’t feel seen or acknowledged,” Rudd said.

She suggests that parishes remain flexible, meeting young adults as they are and listening before teaching much.

A tone that connects

Lauren Enriquez, Echo apprentice at St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie, dreams of welcoming alienated young adults back to the church. A soccer player who was forced to retire early because of concussions, she is a go-getter. She has been a Capitol Hill intern and

came to theology as a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The more I studied, the more I kept wanting to,” she said. She also felt called to serve concretely in the church, and Catholic social teaching fired her up. It all started to fit together — prayer, knowledge and action informing each other.

“I am passionate about trying to be Christ’s hands and feet to those on the margins,” said Enriquez, who grew up Catholic in Los Angeles.

Enriquez said parishes will attract and keep young adults if they make it clear that all are welcome and cherished. She suggests a tone for messages on social media and other outlets:

“God has a plan for you. There is a God who loves you — parishes need to get that message through,” she said. “That has the potential to change someone’s life. God has the power to come in and heal the wounds in someone’s life.”

Reshaping parishes

Each Echo apprentice has a mentor, an experienced minister who works at the same parish.

“I’m glad to see the Notre Dame program focusing on pastoral and practical skills,” said Chris Storm, director of religious education at Holy Trinity in Beaverton and Rudd’s mentor.

His initial tips on parish ministry include being flexible.

“We are no longer in a church where we can say classes are at 7 p.m. at night,” said Storm. “We need to give many options to families. We need to schedule at home, in person and online resources.”

Storm said Rudd and her peers bring energy and excitement, which can rub off on parishioners. A mix of experience and youth on staff is good for a parish, Storm said.

Deacon Kevin Welch, director of pastoral ministries for the Archdiocese of Portland, is excited by the Echo mentorship model and hopes it spreads.

“Young Catholics are, in my opinion, the heart and soul, hope and life, present and future of the church,” said Deacon Welch. “I am completely captivated by the young people who are doing the good work of the Lord, who labor well in the vineyard, and who make their parishes, dioceses and nonprofits more vibrant, faithful, and Spirit-driven.”

Welch said young adults are not just for youth ministry.

“They are changing parishes through better communications, be it a functioning bulletin, social media, livestreaming Masses, seeing our faith through a different lens,” he explained. “They are bringing in video conferencing, text communications, streamlined accounting techniques, and even online giving. The bottom line: We need to create a space so they can help parishes.”