The 2011 book “Sticky Faith” by Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark cites research that estimates that after high school, as many as half of young adults drift away from their faith practice.
While that statistic isn’t denomination-specific, it’s not an encouraging number for Catholic parents and teachers who want their kids and their students to remain connected to their faith.
In this blog post, Jennifer Janus highlights what some Monarch Alumni have to say on the matter and what they are personally doing to help make faith “stick.”
Saint Mary’s alumna Danielle Zuccaro (class of ’08) is working to help Catholic high school students buck the trend by helping them establish a network of faithful friends before they set foot on their college campuses for freshman year.
Zuccaro wants young people to see their faith as a beautiful treasure they want to nurture, protect and share. She wants to help them form friendships with other students who want to stay connected to their faith so that they are supported from the beginning of college and don’t feel alone.
For Danny Pellei, a Saint Mary’s class of 2016 who is now a junior at the University of Virginia, plugging in to the campus Catholic community has been a source of friendship and faith-building.
Danny is involved with Catholic campus ministry at U.Va. and has participated in a number of Catholic service camps and Catholic college conferences where he’s met hundreds of other faith- and spirit-filled young people.
“My faith has given me a purpose and identity in a world that loves artificial experiences and images,” Danny said. “My faith has given me peace during times when I’m struggling physically and emotionally.”
Michael Zuccaro, Danielle’s brother, is also an SMCS class of 2016 grad. Michael is a junior at Ohio State University and is involved with campus ministry there, as well as attending Sunday Mass and daily Mass a few times a week.
“It is virtually impossible to get through college without having a personal relationship with God,” Michael said. “There are too many vices, distractions and too much stress that is constantly overstimulating. Having faith in God keeps me grounded in the things that matter.”
Alicia Hudalla is a 2010 Saint Mary’s grad who played basketball at University of Richmond. She is now completing physician assistant school at James Madison University. Alicia said: “There is no greater teacher than adversity.” She cited her faith, friends and family as integral supports that have helped her get through times of “loneliness, confusion, frustration and anger” during her life, and who continue to help her now.
“My friends and my family have been an amazing support system, but there have been moments where I have … not wanted to put my own adversity on someone else,” she said. “That is where I leaned on my faith and relied on greater understanding.”
“By releasing those feelings to God, I was able to feel a little bit lighter and was able to keep moving forward,” shared Hudalla.
Surrounded by faith
Jack Harenchar is a Saint Mary’s class of 2018 grad who is now a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. Jack said: “Faith is important for me because it serves as a rock in a tumultuous world. When things are stressful or may be going wrong, I can always find solace in prayer and community in fellow Catholics and the church. To me, my faith means support, security and comfort.”
As Notre Dame is a university founded and run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the faith opportunities there are – as Jack said – “boundless.” Students are able to attend Mass each weekend in every dorm or in the main basilica. Going to Mass there can be as easy as walking downstairs from your dorm room, even in pajamas.
Jack said the University of Notre Dame student population is 82% Catholic – and while it in no way discriminates against students who aren’t Catholic, it helps those who are Catholic strengthen their faith because they’re surrounded by others who share their same faith practice.
“Faith is a big aspect of the Notre Dame experience,” Jack said. Students are required to take two theology classes during their time at school, and the campus ministry is one of the biggest groups at the University.
Alice Joss, an SMCS class of 2019 grad – now a Godwin senior — who will be heading to college in the fall, said that she thinks some of her peers may have drifted away because young peoples’ lives are busier and more stressful in high school than they were in elementary and middle school, and because there are faith-centric fewer activities for teens available.
Staś Schoenborn is a Saint Mary’s 2018 grad who’s now a freshman at William & Mary. He said he thinks sometimes his peers drift away because they “were either forced to follow what the family preached,” or “never had a solid foundation.”
Some who may have had some religious affiliation go to college and “bombarded with multiple ideas and persuasions, … pick whatever fit their needs.” Staś attends Mass and finds prayer and the daily practice of thanking God for “small good things” help him “find truth.” But he thinks more liveliness and agency at Mass might encourage deeper connection among his peers.
Alice has chosen to stay involved during high school by participating in and volunteering to help with Youth Faith Formation at Saint Mary’s on Sunday afternoons. She also attended the One Bread One Cup conference at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana last summer, an experience she said was life-changing for her.
“Practicing my faith is very important to me,” Alice said. “When I pray daily, and practice my faith, I feel calmer and less anxious. I one hundred percent want my faith to be a part of my college life.”
Five faith-filled adults
Laura Muller Stapleton graduated from Saint Mary’s in 2005. She’s now coordinator of Christian formation at St. Mary’s Parish. Laura believes adults can help.
“If a teen has five faith-filled adults, beyond his parents, who know him, love him and are invested in him, he is more likely to hang on to his faith,” she said.
For Laura, a niche within the church community as part of church choir and music ministry has been key to her continued connection. She was in St. Mary’s choir during her first two years of college, while she worked and earned her associates degree while living at home.
She got involved with music ministry as well with the church attached to her college at Longwood. And when she returned to the Richmond area, she found a home in music ministry at St. Michael’s parish, as well as through cantoring at St. Mary’s.
“My gifts were welcomed and encouraged,” she said. “From that firm footing, everything else sprang.”
Call them by name
Laura said that families, teachers and other caring adults can encourage young peoples’ faith by showing interest in and support for them.
“Ask them frequently: ‘How can I pray for you today?’ she said. “Ask them about their highs and lows, or what’s something good that happened, or what’s something they are looking forward to.
“Remember what’s important to them,” Laura said. “Ask them about their stuff. Call them by name.”
Showing the way
Jackie Lee Deinhammer is a 2019 graduate of Christopher Newport University who majored in philosophy and theology with a minor in pre-seminary studies. She’s the daughter of Saint Mary’s Elementary French and Spanish teacher Kathy Lee and has volunteered time as a confirmation sponsor and helped with confirmation classes at St. Mary’s.
“I think it is vital for young people to remain connected to their faith as it is the most important relationship in their life,” Jackie said.
She challenges mothers, fathers, teachers, and everyone connected to young adults to live their faith in a way that models for young people how to be.
“If the faith isn’t something real and lived in a way that extends past Sunday and praying before meals, then how are young people ever supposed to get the impression – let alone a deeper understanding – that this faith matters, that it is unique and wonderful and practical, and life-giving?” Jackie said.
“We have to show the young people that … we care about the faith that we’re telling them to care about,” she said. “If you show them what a prayer life looks like, then when you ask them to have one, that doesn’t seem foreign. What we fill ourselves with, we are more likely to pass on.”
Jackie talked about how she thinks the drift issue starts long before young adults get to high school. What are additional ways to help?
Involving young people and getting involved with them, challenging them to do hard things, treating them with respect at all times and praying for them are some suggestions from Jackie.
Jack Harenchar reiterated the importance of what The Associates of St. John Bosco is trying to do. “If a teen can find a group of people to go to Mass with, they will be more likely to go because they’ll recognize that they’re not alone,” he said. “If parents can help connect children to others with whom they can share their faith, it will help.”
Try to make it easy
Jennifer Joss, a Saint Mary’s parent and parishioner who graduated from the University of Notre Dame, thinks college Catholic parishes and campus ministries should do all they can to make students feel welcome immediately. She also thinks parents can help their kids stay close to their faith after high school in a couple of simple ways.
“Parents can help their kids find other Catholics on campus – help them to find the church and the campus ministry building and connect them with the people around campus who want to support them,” Jennifer said.
Teach them different ways to pray, she said. Make sure they have a Bible with them so they can read scripture. Make sure they have a rosary.
“I think faith should be easily accessible,” Jennifer said. “The easier it is for our kids to access it, the easier it will be for them to follow through.”