In ninth grade, Kareem Smith went on a discernment retreat for high schoolers considering the priesthood. Raised Catholic, he knew what Eucharistic adoration was, but became captivated that night by the way he encountered Christ during a Holy Hour.
“It was the right amount of guidance, and also freedom, to have a personal experience,” now-Deacon Smith recalled.
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal had helped organize the retreat and the Holy Hour and told Deacon Smith about “Catholic Underground,” a monthly gathering of young adults centered on Eucharistic adoration at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Manhattan.
Thirteen years later, and preparing for ordination as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, Deacon Smith told the Register that Catholic Underground enriched his faith and vocation. Deacon Smith still attends Catholic Underground several times a year.
“It led me from having this prayer experience once a month to having a personal Holy Hour every day,” he said. “It’s something I’m still reaping the benefits of.”
The Church continues to face difficulties in retaining Catholic millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1998. But Holy Hours like Deacon Smith experienced may be a key part of evangelizing young adults.
Gathering in the evening for Eucharistic worship and socializing can give young men and women an authentic understanding of the common life of the Church they may have otherwise missed.
The Pew Research Center in 2014 found that only 16% of millennials identified themselves as Catholic, compared to 23% of the baby-boomer generation.
A 2016 Pew study found only 26% of younger millennial Catholics, those between ages 18 and 29, report attending Mass at least once a week.
To minister to young adults, new efforts centered on Eucharistic Holy Hours have emerged.
Although independent of each other, they share several features: Eucharistic adoration is always the reason for gathering together, allowing a peaceful time to worship God. Several priests also make themselves available for confession during each event, which people cite as an important reason for their attendance.
Each event intentionally provides an experience of beauty to young adults, from the music played to how the altar has been arranged.
Finally, each regularly scheduled gathering provides participants with an authentic experience of Catholic community.
Franciscan Ideal of Beauty
Catholic Underground gathers several hundred people on the first Saturday of the month.
During exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, priests hear between 200 and 300 confessions, while the friars offer small meditations and lead contemplative praise-and-worship music. After Benediction, young adults attend an artist’s showcase and socialize in the church’s lower level. The art performance, said Brother Mark-Mary, allows people to see a Catholic way to dialogue with the culture, while providing a forum for Catholic artists to connect to an audience.
He explained that the beauty of the evening has a definite Franciscan character. “It’s a beauty that is simple and intimate,” he said.
Everything is intentionally directed to draw the senses to the presence of Christ at the center of the church, from the music to the lighting. “By engaging the senses, somehow we’re given a sense of the Lord’s beauty.”
Brother Mark-Mary says young adults are attracted to the event because “it’s centered in prayer, but it’s also a great expression of the joy of relationships, to Christ and to each other.”
Sending Out Disciples
“Christ in the City,” in New Orleans, has been meeting the first Tuesday of the month at Notre Dame Seminary since 2009. Along with exposition and confession, a priest reads the Gospel of the day and offers a spiritual reflection to help young adults understand God’s word in their lives.
Chelsea Colomb, associate director for young-adult ministry in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the Register that Christ in the City is an opportunity for young adults to gather in prayer and community together consistently.
“They know that it’s an opportunity for them to enrich their spiritual life in prayer with the young-adult community,” she said.
Confession is particularly important to these evenings, said Colomb. Many people embrace the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, especially if they have been away from the penitential part of the faith for a long time. One woman Colomb had seen from time to time at Christ in the City came up to her one evening and expressed her gratitude for the monthly events, saying it had been nearly 10 years since she had confessed her sins.
Colomb added that Christ in the City complements other young-adult ministries in New Orleans by bringing the archdiocesan community together.
“People get the experience of the greater community and then have the opportunity to go out and get involved in their parishes,” she said. “They’re not just being fed and living from event to event, but they’re inspired in adoration to go out and make disciples, and bring others in.”
‘Beauty Is at the Center’
Father Luke Strand, one of the founders of “Cor Jesu” and the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said that Cor Jesu is “really simple: It’s a Holy Hour and Mass, done really beautifully.”
The priest saw the need to reach out to young adults in the archdiocese five years ago, so he sent out an email invitation. Around 50 people attended the first night. Five years later, nearly 300 attend Cor Jesu at St. Robert’s in Shorewood, Wisconsin, each Wednesday evening, with more coming in the summertime.
Mary Burns has attended Cor Jesu evenings from the start. “Early on, it was one of my go-to points for being revived and refreshed in my own prayer life,” she said, adding that going to Eucharistic adoration is “for my own benefit, getting to adore the Lord, but also just the intense communal feel that was present in coming together.”
“Now, it’s a place where I’m able to connect with others and recommit to prayer and to the sacraments every week with the community around me,” she said.
Father Strand said that being before the Blessed Sacrament helps a person “open up one’s heart to seek to do the will of the Father.”
“Being before Jesus, gazing upon him, letting him gaze upon one’s heart, that’s going to be primary in a young person’s discernment,” he said.
“If we’re not listening to the voice of God, if we’re not taking the time for silence, hunkered down in ardent prayer, we’re not going to discern our vocation,” he said.
Thanks to Cor Jesu, Father Strand has frequent opportunities to meet with young men who are discerning the priesthood.
But the community formed through worshipping together supports others discerning vocations to marriage and the religious life, as well.
Father Strand said that many have also been inspired from their weekly encounters at Cor Jesu to start ministries throughout the archdiocese, doing everything from pro-life work to forming scholas.
“It’s bold and [all about] inviting young people to give up their lives for Jesus,” said Father Strand, “and to do that radically, whether that’s in marriage, or priesthood or religious life.”
Nicholas W. Smith writes from Rochester, New York.