The National Catholic Review
Phyllis M. Hanlon
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On the surface, the scene is not unusuala group of young men and women laughing and talking in an informal setting while munching snacks and sipping beer. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will find that a unique objective unites these individuals. A burning hunger, not for physical nourishment or socialization, but rather for spiritual fulfillment has drawn these young adults together. Born out of a need for programs specifically geared toward 20- and 30-somethings who feel disconnected from the church, Theology on Tap attempts to bring straight talk about faith issues and how they relate to everyday living to this spiritually starved generation.

In 1981, the Rev. John Cusick, director of young adult ministry in Chicago, created Theology on Tap in an effort to strengthen the tenuous thread that holds young adults to the church and to minister to the unique, mature needs of people beyond high school. Father Cusick identifies a chasm between the teen years and middle age and feels that Theology on Tap can bridge that gap and provide a positive experience of the Catholic Churchits traditions, practices, beliefs and spiritualityfor the young adult generation.

Believing that good ministry doesn’t happen, but is planned, Father Cusick wrote a 100-page manual that explains how to deliver the Theology on Tap program, including suggestions for speakers, topics, venues and format. According to Father Cusick, all the details have been well thought out; some might seem insignificant, but on closer inspection they reflect an underlying ideological position. Every aspect of the program attempts to convey a positive, welcoming attitude toward young adult Catholics. With such careful attention to detail, the program communicates to the young adult that he or she is important to the life of the Catholic community, notes Father Cusick.

The program runs in four-week sessions, although the structure and venues vary. Meetings can be held in any location that will accommodate a small to medium-size group of adults. The Chicago groups generally gather in a parish hall, where food and beverages can be served. Refreshments range from simple appetizers to full-course meals or themed buffets. We have a parish in one of the older Italian neighborhoods that has created a café with lights, tables, waiters and music, says Father Cusick. It’s become a happening. Attendance at Theology on Tap ranges anywhere from 15 to 150, depending on the caliber of the speaker, the appeal of the topic, the amount of advertising and the time of year.

As expected, certain topics tend to draw larger crowds. Father Cusick notes that this generation as a whole struggles with developing and maintaining quality relationships in their lives. Issues surrounding spirituality and relationships naturally top the list of favorites. Subjects relating to Scripture and how it applies to everyday life usually attract higher numbers. In most cases, he reports, the meetings are populated with individuals who have an unabashed curiosity about all things Catholic.

Organized much like a traditional adult education class, Theology on Tap sessions include socialization, presentation, input, a short break, discussion and conversation, and a question-and-answer period. Even though the time frame should not exceed two hours, flexibility is important. We encourage parishes not to throw anybody out because oftentimes good conversation only begins when formality ends, says Father Cusick.

In seeking speakers, two criteria are key: the potential speaker must have something of value to say and must have a passion for the topic. These are young adults who are looking for substance and we try to communicate that effectively. We are constantly staying in tune with the young adult generation. When you stay close to your people what you try to do is offer them response to their needs in their style, says Father Cusick. What we’ve attempted to do is showcase, through our speakers, the leadership of the Catholic Church. Chicago has what they call a faculty comprising close to 90 speakers, including clergy, laity and young adult peers. The number of speakers in programs in other parts of the country varies according to specific need and availability.

Forty-nine parishes and campuses in the archdiocese of Chicago currently host Theology on Tap. Of the five dioceses involved in the program, Father Cusick notes that 160 churches offer 368 nights of input for young adults with a total of 96 speakers. Nationwide, 381 parishes and organizations in 44 states in three countries have asked permission to host Theology on Tap, according to Father Cusick. This is the most extensive outreach to young adults anywhere in the nation, he says. This overwhelmingly positive response continues to validate both what secular and religious data say about this generation, notes Father Cusick. Some of the Theology on Tap programs around the country are based on the original concept but are not registered as official hosts of the program.

Annunciata Parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago has been involved with Theology on Tap for the last four years. James Taylor, who served as co-host for one of those years, sought to connect with his faith on a different level and felt that the program enabled him to accomplish that goal. Noting that everyone faces a different set of issues in life, Taylor says this program provides a forum for open discussions of faith issues and how to apply them realistically on an individual basis. You can connect to faith in a real way that is appropriate to the time of your life, Taylor says. The interactive format seems more like a dialogue, according to Taylor, than a lecture. He points out that when it comes to religion, many individuals shift into auto-pilot after high school. Programs like Theology on Tap help to answer vital faith-related questions at a time when many Catholics are drifting away from the church and into more secular activities.

Unlike Chicago’s parish approach, Massachusetts adopted a diocesan-run Theology on Tap program in January 2003, when the Diocese of Worcester launched its first session. According to Sister Betty Paul, director of youth ministry for the diocese, her office had been seeking effective ways to reach the young adult community, and this program offered an ideal adult faith formation opportunity. After purchasing the training manual and working out the details, meetings were scheduled at a centrally located downtown restaurant to attract young adults from surrounding towns. We don’t have a lot of parishes with 20 to 25 young adults. If they did, the parish could run its own program, says Sister Paul. This particular format has proven successful, judging by attendance numbers and feedback.

Some young adults find their way into Theology on Tap indirectly. Chris Horner was a full-time pastoral assistant and deeply involved in parish activities in the Archdiocese of St. Louis several years ago when he learned of the program. He and other members of a local prayer group began to attend meetings and found the experience educational as well as energizing and uplifting. Attendees were similar in age and level of spirituality, which enhanced the overall experience, according to Horner.

At St. Leo’s parish in Oakland, Calif., Michael Fitzgerald was drawn to the concept of Theology on Tap through his involvement with the church’s adult Christian initiation program. Originally intended to provide candidates with a positive experience, Theology on Tap has created a bridge between secular recreation and more religious activities for many individuals both inside and outside the parish, according to Fitzgerald. In this particular program, the parish keeps two goals in mind. We want to present topics in Catholic theology and thought, says Fitzgerald, and to engage a young adult audience in an exchange of ideas on faith. Fitzgerald, along with Natalie Ackerman, a first-grade teacher at the parish school and Thomas Scirghi, S.J., a professor of liturgy at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., hope to draw young adults back into the active practice of their Catholic faith. Typically, Theology on Tap has more than just a positive influential effect on an audience that might be wandering around in their spiritual journey, says Fitzgerald.

In addition to helping coordinate the program, Father Scirghi offers his services as speaker. He presents easy-to-understand analogies between Catholic practices and symbols and everyday living at Theology on Tap sessions. He hopes that attendees will learn something that will help nourish their own lives in the church. We are opening them up to what I like to think is the richness and the variety of the church’s teaching, says Father Scirghi. Having worked with young professionals in Boston, New York and Oakland, Father Scirghi acknowledges their superior academic capacity, but he finds their understanding of the church and its tradition limited. These people are asking for more, for a deeper understanding, especially as they marry and then have children. They want to pass something on.

Natalie Ackerman cites the community-building feature of Theology on Tap as one of its most beneficial aspects. It’s a very welcoming setting, and melts away those structured feelings, she says. To perpetuate that sense of community, Father Scirghi would like to create a stronger tie with other programs in the region. He notes that the San Francisco area is rich with spiritual and social activities through Theology on Tap.

The University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, runs a Theology on Tap program that, because of the diverse character of the university, draws attendees from many faiths to its off-campus meetings, which are held throughout the school year. John Martens, who teaches New Testament courses at the university, points out that in the informal atmosphere of a nearby restaurant students tend to open up more than they would on campus. It’s too daring to do that in a class or church setting, he says. Martens finds that students understand and appreciate that their interest in spiritual issues is taken seriously. They know that there is room for discussion, room for doubts and room to challenge certain issues, he says.

For the 26-year-old publicist Nicole Quigley, moving to Washington, D.C., from her small hometown presented a challenge in many ways, particularly when it came to her faith. Searching for connection to other young Catholics, she heard about Theology on Tap from friends. After attending a couple of meetings, she felt she had found a way to regenerate that link. Theology on Tap meetings keep your faith on your mind during the work week, rather than just focusing on God on Sundays, she says. The opportunity to socialize with other young Catholics in this setting also appealed to Quigley. You work in a secular world. It’s good to connect with others who think like you do. More important, she sees the program as a positive response on the church’s part to the needs of young people. Theology on Tap reinforces the pope’s focus on youth. It’s a good way to complement his vision, Quigley says.

Although the wisdom, expertise and knowledge of all parishioners is important, Father Cusick emphasizes the need for input from younger members of the parish. The backbone of Catholic parish life 30 to 35 years ago was people 25 to 40. Oftentimes today, the age group 25 to 40 is missing, Father Cusick says. As a church, we have to learn to regenerate parish life and church life.

Even though the program has existed for 23 years, Father Cusick notes that success takes time. Too often we adopt the American mindset that it’s got to be perfect and feel good right for the moment. To me, this is like building blocks, he says.

As the Catholic Church continues the never-ending process of maintaining strong ties with all generations in the global community, Theology on Tap is delivering a healthy dose of spiritual sustenance for young adult appetites.

Phyllis M. Hanlon is a freelance writer whose work has been published in a variety of business, medical, academic, general interest and religious publications, including St. Anthony Messenger and several Catholic college magazines.

Comments

Melanie A. Shakarian | 2/7/2007 - 3:24pm
Thank you for Phyllis M. Hanlon’s article, “Food for Young Appetites” (9/22). With much success, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland adopted the Rev. John Cusick’s Theology on Tap program.

The Associate Board of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Foundation manages the northeast Ohio Theology on Tap series. This board is a group of young professionals, usually between the ages of 25 and 45, who seek leadership, volunteer, social and philanthropic opportunities. They elected to host a Theology on Tap lecture four times a year at different large venues around the diocese. The popularity of this quarterly series grew quickly since its inception in early 2001; average attendance peaked at 350 to 400 people. Local comedy clubs, bars and restaurants are now calling us requesting to host a Theology on Tap at their establishment. We are struggling to find venues large enough to accommodate the young professionals interested.

We have seen a cross-section of attendees: young singles and couples who want to network with other young Catholics; others who are distanced from the church, interested in finding their niche again in the Catholic community; some who are simply interested in learning more about certain aspects of theology and the Catholic faith.

What we have found most amazing is the impressive number of young professionals who, after attending Theology on Tap, are interested in serving on a diocesan board of directors, connecting again with a parish community or donating to Catholic Charities.

Through this program, we are doing more than simply meeting the spiritual needs of young Catholics. We are finding a way for the church to grow from the talents young professionals offer.