Young, Mostly Single, And Afire with Faith

DALLAS—It's Wednesday night, and some 60 to 70 young adults are kneeling in the eucharistic chapel of St. Monica Catholic Church. They have come to adore the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, pray the rosary, intercede for the intentions of the Holy Father and for their own intentions, and sing songs of praise and worship.

This reverent yet vibrant weekly prayer cenacle is the heart of a new organization that is sowing seeds of conversion, renewal, and vocations throughout the local diocese and beyond.

The fact that the group is young and mostly single “frees up all this energy” for work in the Church, according to Sheryl Collmer, who had already been active in parish adult education prior to joining the Young Serrans. “In regular parish life you have families with so many commitments, that you can come up with the good ideas but it's very hard to get things done.”

Collmer, an accountant and a third-year student at the University of Dallas' Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, added that the Young Serrans exhibit a “100% commitment” to growing in and sharing their faith that she's not seen elsewhere.

“There are so many people (in Young Serrans) that put the faith and Christ first … that's the most important thing in their lives,” she said.

Collmer believes the group's initiatives draw strength from the Eucharistic prayer cenacle, which “places us right smack in the middle of Catholic spirituality.”

Monique Taylor, 24, a second-year student at Southwestern Medical School who is discerning her vocation, testifies that her faith has grown through being a Young Serran.

“The Holy Spirit has really moved in our community,” she said. “When you have Jesus as the center, the focus, then holiness comes out of that. Hearts are changed. I have so much greater love for and understanding of the person of Jesus.”

Called the Young Serra Community of Dallas, the group of mostly single, age 40-and-under lay people have produced a major Catholic-Protestant debate, a year-anda-half-long lecture series by noted academics on the Catholic faith, a variety of youth retreats and programs, at least four vocations to the religious life, and four (soon to be nine) marriages. In five years the group has grown from 20 members to 115, two offshoot Young Serra clubs have recently begun in Fort Worth and San Antonio, and Catholics in other cities are taking notice.

In one sense the Young Serra club is just another of the more than 600 clubs of Serra International, an organization founded in 1934 by a small group of Catholic friends in Seattle who wanted to share ideas on how to live their Christian faith. Named for Blessed Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary from Spain, the group soon developed its special focus — adult Catholic education and the fostering of vocations to priesthood and the religious life — and it has spread that apostolate throughout 35 countries.

But the Young Serrans are also unique. Last summer, after the group's “Catholic Evangelization Weekend” project received the Father Junipero Serra Award as “the most successful and innovative effort to further Catholicism and promote vocations,” Serra International's executive director Robert Raccuglia said, “Everyone's interested in what's going on in Dallas. I don't think there's anything comparable in the Serra Club world like the Young Serrans.”

To begin with, the average age of most Serrans is about 60, and because of that, young people were just not being attracted to the organization, said Mike Murray, 31, a past president of Young Serrans.

So in 1993, Don Wetzel of the Serra Club of Dallas helped launch a specifically young group — more than half the Young Serrans are in their 20s — capable not only of bringing fresh faces to Serra, but also to be able to relate to youth in vocation awareness programs.

“We started out as an experiment; they didn't know if we'd make it,” explained Murray. “After about a year or two we finally figured out we were surviving.”

Service Projects

The club's early service projects included helping put on Youth 2000 retreats — prayer weekends for youth centered on the Mass and eucharistic adoration — and painting cabins at the Pines Catholic Camp in East Texas. In the spring of 1996 the Young Serrans put on their first vocations retreat, which ended up attracting more young adult leaders than kids to its program of talks, the rosary, the Divine Office, and Mass.

“We see that as a real launching pad. We became very confident in being very spiritual, and we settled into a pattern of being very spiritual,” recalled Murray. “(We realized) if we're going to work with kids, we're going to have to have the faith to impart. … Our philosophy is that if a young person does not know and love the Church, it's unlikely he'll consider a vocation.”

The Young Serrans now have a full schedule of spiritual, service, and social activities, another feature setting them apart from the more typical two-meetings-a-month for Serra Clubs. A calendar in the most recent newsletter notes the annual awards banquet this month; the regular monthly Friday night meeting featuring Mass and a speaker (this month it's Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann); the Wednesday night prayer cenacle; weekly Bible study; second Saturday rosary and Mass; and each Sunday afternoon a game of Ultimate Frisbee.

What's not on the calendar are the various ongoing projects, such as pro-life work, in which Young Serrans are heavily involved, planning for new youth outreaches, development of adult education initiatives, and spontaneous social events. Young Serrans also encourage each other to grow in their faith through the sacraments; many attend daily Mass and make a practice of frequent confession.

The group's current president, Dave Tamisiea, said he “stumbled into the Young Serrans” after following up on a parish bulletin announcement for a Youth 2000 retreat. A recent law school graduate, Tamisiea had undergone a profound reawakening of his faith after traveling to Medjugorje, and he was looking for friends to support him in his renewed devotion.

Some months after joining the group, Tamisiea found himself in charge of the club's biggest project to date: the 1997 Catholic Evangelization Weekend, an event which drew some of the biggest names in apologetics and an audience of 4,000 people from around the country. The weekend, which earned the group the 1998 Serra award, also produced a number of conversions to the Catholic faith, including that of two ushers for the event, and galvanized the Young Serrans into the group they are today, he said.

The event opened with a Friday night prayer cenacle attended by some 2,500 Catholics that featured a Scriptural rosary led by Father Mitch Pacwa SJ; a Mass celebrated by Father Benedict Groeschel CFR, with a homily on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and a talk by the convert and lay apologist Scott Hahn on the richness, beauty and truth of the Catholic faith, said Tamisiea.

‘Charitable’ Debate

The next day was billed as a “Protestant-Catholic Dialogue” (“We wanted them to debate the issues in a charitable way,” said Tamisiea), which matched Hahn with Rob Bowman, a Protestant Bible expert from Georgia, on the issue of salvation and justification; Father Groeschel with Dr. George Logan, a Presbyterian scholar from Australia, on the Eucharist; and Father Pacwa with Ken Samples of “The Bible Answer Man” on authority. All three of the Protestant scholars had grown up as Catholics, Tamisiea observed.

To follow up on people's interest from the weekend, the Young Serrans offered for the next 18 months the “Catholic for a Reason” lecture series featuring such scholars as Douglas Bushman, director of University of Dallas' pastoral studies program; Father Pacwa; and Dr. Janet Smith.

Tamisiea said he has since communicated several times with Dr. Logan, who told him, “That event in Dallas has struck me to my very core. In my whole life I've never been shown so much love by any group — Catholic or Protestant — than I was by the Young Serrans.”

Plans are in the works for “Catholic Evangelization Weekend II,” Tamisiea said. In March they will begin offering a 48-course video series by Father John Corapi, of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

So far the group claims four religious vocations.

“They pray for vocations and talk a lot about them,” said Father Joseph Mehan, associate pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church and chaplain for the Young Serra community for the past year and a half. “People feel comfortable in discussing vocations. Others in the group affirm them: ‘If you'd like to do that, we'll pray for you.’ There's not pressure to (choose a vocation), but there's not pressure not to. It's a positive thing.”

The Young Serrans also pray for and take seriously the sacrament of matrimony as a vocation. Mike Murray, the past president, and Colette Flood, another Young Serran, will be getting married in two months.

“I think the Young Serrans were instrumental in me really finally gaining full knowledge of what it meant to be a Catholic, which allowed me to grow closer to God and to be more comfortable and confident in my faith to share it with others,” Murray said. “It's a tremendous group of people with a great purpose.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.