October 21, 2016
At the turn of the 20th century and the post-war years, St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in north side Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood became home to German immigrants staking claim in America. There’s still a monthly Mass in German, but today, a new generation of millennials are filling the pews and starting their life in the city. The Lakeview neighborhood, also known as “Wrigleyville,” due to its proximity to Chicago Cubs stadium, Wrigley Field, has become a popular spot.
Father Michael O’Connell, pastor of St. Alphonsus, describes the story he often encounters of young adults leaving home, at least for a while, in rural or suburban Michigan, Iowa, or Wisconsin, to work or experience city life. But more than just staying busy with activities, Father O’Connell sees young adults entering roles of real leadership and embracing ownership of their parish home.
Moving from Loneliness to Leadership
The Church’s message speaks through the discontent and loneliness that defines many of their generation. Much of the discontent, Father O’Connell describes, comes from “a longing for intimacy that’s hard to find in the bars. They don’t find their real selves in bars but in a community of faith.” Of course, that doesn’t stop the young adults from heading down the street after Sunday evening Mass for a cocktail, nor is that a bad thing. The community serves to integrate the big picture of having fun and having faith.
Father O’Connell describes their faith as an “anchor in their adult life,” which connects them with their past and provides a firm sense of direction and purpose, which cultural perception usually finds lacking among their generation.
A few characteristics have even surprised Father O’Connell. What tended to drive a wedge between previous Catholic generations, millennials express as a natural attraction for more traditional liturgy coupled with a driving sense of justice to the marginalized and openness to building friendships with diverse groups of people.
The holistic embrace of Catholic life is an asset that has served as a catalyst for leadership opportunities in the parish. For example, Father O’Connell shared how in his time as pastor, he went through the process of revamping the parish finance council. He was happily surprised how many young adults stepped up to serve on the council and has been truly amazed at their intelligence and ideas they bring to the table.
Millennials don’t necessarily crave more activities, but a local church that trusts and invests in their skills, talents, and insights. Contrary to the conventional assessment as being entitled, Father O’Connell sees millennials as teeming with energy and anxious to serve.
Learning and Leading
Sounds good, but don’t know where to start? As a first step for pastors and staffs looking to mobilize the young adult population, Father O’Connell recommends a focus on creating a core community that will be a face for the larger church community. This isn’t as hard as you might think. Who is already coming regularly? Get to know them, and instead of giving them a preconceived plan of action, focus on their strengths and see where their ideas might lead. In Father O’Connell’s experience, they might surprise you.
By Evan Ponton