As a youth minister with eight years’ experience at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Kennesaw, Ga., Lisa Fiamingo found herself increasingly troubled. Why were the teens who had been in her group, including some of the most committed participants in the program, leaving the Catholic Church during their college years or not long after?
The fallings away devastated the kids’ parents, and the pattern, repeated many times over, left Fiamingo wondering what was going on with young people in the Church.
It’s a common issue. Teens who are on fire with the faith in high school youth groups often lose their fire in college. Why? Because most college ministries are lacking, says Fiamingo.
Recalling her first two years at Kennesaw State University in Georgia before transferring to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, Fiamingo says she sometimes went to Mass twice on Sunday because she was “starving.”
“I couldn’t find enough on campus,” she adds. “I had one tape with Christian music and that’s all I had.”
Eventually Fiamingo met Mike Judge, a former LifeTeen member who was also eager to do more to keep young Catholics Catholic. In 2001, under the spiritual direction of Father Tim Hepburn, then the campus minister at a Catholic high school, Fiamingo and Judge founded a young-adult ministry called Spirit and Truth on the Kennesaw college campus.
The weekly prayer group combined spontaneous praise and worship with contemplative time in front of the Eucharist. The group’s name was inspired by John 4:23, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “The hour is coming, and is here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.”
The group grew quickly from six people to 75, some of whom drove two hours to attend because it was the only Catholic group around for people between 18 and 30 years old.
Today there are five Spirit and Truth groups in Georgia and 12 nationwide, and the group is online at SandT.org.
Fiamingo, who is now in her 30s and the mother of three children, developed a program for the groups. It involves 30 minutes of praise and worship, a 30-minute teaching from the Church, Catechism or Scripture, and one hour of Eucharistic adoration. Some groups have an informal social event afterwards. (She also created a CD with the music used in the program.)
Martha Gaynoe, Spirit and Truth’s interim director, oversees all the groups and is creating a leadership-training program so that Spirit and Truth can grow and develop. Whether established on a college campus or in a parish, each Spirit and Truth chapter needs to have a priest as spiritual director and for Eucharistic adoration.
Gaynoe says statistics show that 56% of high-school Catholics are involved in their parishes, but only 17% are involved with the Church in college.
“When high-school seniors graduate and go off to college, they don’t know where they can get involved,” she explains. “We’re trying to find containers for them.”
“When you put people before Jesus, he does the work,” adds Gaynoe. “Spirit and Life is such a fluid program, and it’s changing lives. This is what the New Evangelization is about — new wine in new wineskins.”
Father Hepburn believes the Church has been going in the right direction with high-school ministry, but is lacking at the college level. “We were thinking that Newman Centers would serve colleges — and that happened, to some degree — but the Newman Center culture has become, in a way, stuck,” he says. “Many of the centers underestimated the desire of students for truth and expression of faith; they were more about socializing and social-justice issues.”
With the explosion of Eucharistic adoration across the country, and its presence at youth conferences and retreats such as Youth 2000, the timing is ripe for Spirit and Truth, says the priest. He believes young adults are being led by the Holy Spirit into Eucharist-centered worship.
“One of the things that sometimes gets ignored is the teaching of the Church on praise and charisms of the Spirit,” says Father Hepburn. “These things are not manifested in the normal life of the average parish. I don’t want people to think that, to join Spirit and Truth, you have to join the charismatic renewal, but it was conceived as embracing the Church’s teaching on praise and on charism.”
Keen and Profound
Father Burke Masters is spiritual director for a Spirit and Truth group in Joliet, Ill., where he is also the diocesan vocation director. The group is less than one year old, but it’s already got more than 100 young adults participating — including a handful of young men who are praying about a possible call to the priesthood.
“I’ve become a huge believer in Spirit and Truth, and the key to the movement is Eucharistic adoration,” says Father Burke. “The young people say their lives are so busy and so full of noise; this is the one hour every week they have for silence and prayer. They’re just starving for it.”
Lauren Derrigo, 24, of Roswell, Ga., agrees.
“For some people in the group, if they miss a week, it’s devastating. For me, if I don’t get to Spirit and Truth, I do get to Eucharistic adoration some other time that week,” she says. “I feel stronger in my faith and am really excited about what’s going to happen with Spirit and Truth in the time to come.”
Fiamingo hopes and prays for more young adults to find Christ in Eucharistic adoration because so many of them are unaware of what it is. It’s a treasure they deserve to know about, she says.
“I would like to see priests and deacons support young people just by being at these meetings and being open to what is happening to them,” adds Fiamingo. “Currently there are not a lot of options out there for young Catholics.”
Young adults Derrigo and Sarah Sheldon, 25, are part of a core group now working with Gaynoe to develop Spirit and Truth nationally. Sheldon says Spirit and Truth will help address that time in life between youth and marriage and family, when many people “fall through the cracks” of the Church.
“The loneliness of being a young adult is transformed through the Spirit and Truth prayer community,” says Sheldon. “It happens in a keen and profound way in front of the Eucharist, in a way that other types of programs can’t offer.”