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Young Catholics’ D.C. Haunts

Halloween is here, and each fall, bright-eyed college graduates arrive in the nation’s capital, full of energy and eager to change the world. The Archdiocese of Washington is revamping its young adult ministry.

BY NICK MANETTO

Register Correspondent

October 29-November 4, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/25/06 at 9:00 AM

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Candlelight will cast long shadows. Hooded monks will chant ancient anthems. And men and women will invoke the dead.

Welcome to the Dominican Friars’ annual Vigil of All Saints, which is becoming a must-attend on the social agendas of young Washington Catholics.

It takes creative events of this kind to attract the large and active D.C.-area population of young Catholics.

Held at the Dominican House of Studies, the order’s U.S. seminary, the vigil is a Halloween alternative that seeks to take back the now-secularized holiday.

And it’s had a lot of success with the 20- and 30-something crowd that is often looking for deeper meaning in life and ways to connect with peers of their own faith.

Those who attend are the young people who flock to Washington to work on Capitol Hill, for the federal government or at one of the seemingly endless advocacy organizations that choke the city and its environs.

“There are so many things to do and get involved in in a city like Washington,” said Christa Lopiccolo, the new coordinator of Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington. “In the midst of such an environment, it is easy to get swept up in the momentum of the city and then just get too busy for God or lose sight of the big questions of life.”

Reinvigorating the Young Adult Ministry with a particular focus on attracting people in their 20s is the mission of Lopiccolo, who arrived in January from Wyoming, where she worked on a ranch for at-risk teenage girls.

Challenges cited by Lopiccolo include the busy and intense atmosphere and transient nature of Washington, as well as an aging of the young adults that may have hindered outreach to younger arrivals.

To overcome these hurdles, Lopiccolo is working to enhance the ministry through a mix of more appealing and varied programming, creative outreach and leadership development activities.

“I see the generations that make up the young adult population as a very important, but oftentimes lost and neglected generation,” she said.

Lecture series at popular watering holes, Eucharistic adoration, social justice volunteer opportunities and recreational and social events are among the offerings young adult groups are employing to attract members.

All Hallows Eve

This Halloween, rather than attending a liquor-laden Halloween party or taking part in some bar’s costume contest, young professionals will jam into a dark-wood English Gothic chapel at the Dominican House of Studies to hear readings from the lives of the saints and an inspirational talk, pray ancient night prayers along with the friars, and sing Gregorian chant. The liturgy concludes with a candle-lit procession to the friars’ reliquary while chanting a litany.

Afterwards, there’s a social hour with friar-baked goodies and holy cards of saints for the taking.

The annual event was brought here by a group of young Dominicans from the West Coast, and it immediately began to draw large numbers of college-aged and young adult Catholics. It’s been that way ever since.

“Our annual All Saints’ Vigil draws hundreds for good reason,” said Dominican Father Reginald Whitt, president of the House of Studies. “We can’t help but be drawn to the saints and be inspired by their lives.”

On Capitol Hill

Jennifer Daniels has the same goal, but a different approach. The 28-year-old is chairwoman of the Carpenters, the young adult group at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill.

“We have to be flexible, so we try to have regular as well as random events, so if people have a difficult time going to one, they can go to another event,” she said. When she arrived at the parish about two years ago, the Texas native found a mothballed young adult group. After serving as an RCIA sponsor, she helped reorganize things, starting with a monthly lecture series held at a Capitol Hill bar.

The series is in its second year, and the group has expanded its programming to include a Sunday Bible study. It now counts a contact list of about 80, according to Daniels.

It was a Bible study and discussion that brought Hoa Dang, 35, from her home in suburban Maryland to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington.

“I spent the first couple of months in the suburbs, but did not see many young adults. I tried to get integrated in the parish, but in the suburbs found it harder for new people to get integrated,” she recalled. “With the Young Adult Ministry, even if you’re only here for a year or two, you can be very involved.”

It was “Breaking Open the Word,” the Bible study and discussion group, that attracted Dang to St. Matthew’s. She now runs the sessions, which meet weekly to discuss the readings for the coming week to better prepare participants for Mass.

Kenneth Stinson, 23, who moved to Washington this past July from his home in Michigan, is the type of person Lopiccolo is seeking.

Stinson began searching for a parish to attend even before moving and decided to try St. Matthew’s. It’s now his home parish.

“When you leave your college or hometown, you have a strong sense of belonging and a reason for being there,” he said. “The Young Adults helped me make friends quickly and easily, gave me things to do. They help establish a community feel.”

The value of the ministry is apparent even to those not directly involved.

A Senate staffer who is active in his parish and archdiocese recounted the enthusiasm a Young Adult member brought as an elected member of the parish council.

“Young Adult Ministry really gives them an outlet and a focus, a way to help them live their faith by helping others and working together. It lets them know they are not alone in their beliefs and helps them grow and become mature, responsible good Catholics,” said the staffer, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work.

Since arriving on the job, Lopiccolo has set out to meet regularly with Young Adult leaders and to promote greater communication so best practices can be shared. There are about 25 active Young Adult groups among the 144 parishes of the archdiocese.

Intensifying each organization’s evangelistic spirit, growing and sustaining leaders, and ensuring that the ministry has a clear mission that can overcome leadership turnover are her top priorities.

To attract younger members, Lopiccolo surveyed campus ministers at local colleges and developed a “Life Prep Workshop Series” that was offered over the summer. The series focused on topics of particular interest to 20-somethings, such as determining one’s mission in life and finding the right spouse, and the themes that will appear in programming throughout the year.

It’s not just new arrivals who benefit from this ministry.

Jim Wasel, 40, has lived most of his life in suburban Washington. But he says it was the young adult ministry at St. Martin of Tours in Gaithersburg, Md., that enabled him to deepen his faith.

“When I got involved, it was the thing that got me more involved in the parish and also at a more spiritual level, going deeper into my faith beyond Mass on Sunday,” he said.

One of Wasel’s regrets is that he did not join the ministry earlier, so he is working to improve the group’s outreach to younger members and is planning his own transition to a new leader who is in her 20s.

To address the spiritual and other needs of those age 35 and older, Lopiccolo is developing an extension of the Young Adult ministry in the form of small Christian communities.

“I firmly believe that the Church has something for everyone, no matter what each individual is looking for or wrestling with. I don’t want anyone to be left out from having an opportunity to know this treasure of our faith that gives peace and meaning to one’s life.”

Brother Dominic Legge, who has been a Dominican six years and is expected to be ordained a priest next year, hopes that the religious order’s special Halloween liturgy can be a service to youth groups.

“We’ve been getting young adult groups from parishes that come as a group,” he said. “I just got an e-mail from a young adult group director who plans to come.”

He said a good number of young religious also attend. And those aren’t costumes they’re wearing. They’re the traditional habits they wear every day.

Brother Legge said the vigil is a way to “reclaim Halloween as a Christian feast, which has the possibility of giving a richness to our Catholic faith that many people don’t experience.”

He told the Register that he met a recently-arrived “20-something professional” who asked how she could get connected with young adult activities in the nation’s capital.

“I told her about this and that, but I made a point of saying, ‘You have to come to the All Saints’ Vigil,’” he said. “She said, ‘Oh, that was the first thing someone told me about when I came here.’”

Nick Manetto is based in

Reston, Virginia.