Microbrews and Ministry: Priest Hopes Beer Helps Re-Energize Parish

A Catholic priest in Burlington, Vermont, hopes the city's booming craft beer scene can help re-energize young members of his parish.

"This is no joke," Rev. Rich O'Donnell told New England Cable News at a recent installment of his "Theology on Tap" series at the Church Street Tavern in Burlington. "We're in this for the long haul."

The sessions, in which he and other speakers lead casual discussions about religion, may help him slow or even reverse years of what many Catholic parishes nationwide have seen as a frustrating trend.

Twenty-one to 35-year-olds, O'Donnell said, just aren't going to Mass the way their parents did. Average attendance across all ages is about half what it was in 1970, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

"We're bringing the faith to them," O'Donnell said of his sessions for young people in Burlington.

O'Donnell, who leads the Christ the King and St. Anthony parish, saw opportunity in his city's downtown. The Burlington area is one of the hottest places in the country right now for craft beer, with fans seeking out new sips; new experiences. Father Rich figured, why not mix microbrews and ministry?

"If this is where we can meet [21-35-year-old Catholics], that's great," O'Donnell said.

On a recent Thursday night, the crowd at the Church Street Tavern dwarfed the attendance at the daily Mass just down the road at St. Anthony's. The subject that night was about various definitions of the word "love," and how those may be applied to participants' lives.

"I've never been to anything like it," said James Wicks, 25, of Burlington.

"I think this is exactly the platform ministry should be happening in," added 25-year-old Heather Yassick of Jericho. "It's supposed to be a celebration of life."

Andrew Dudick, 22, of Burlington, told necn he usually skipped church all together during his college years. Asked why he fell away, Dudick responded, "Probably because it's so easy."

Friends weren't going, he remembers. And hanging out with them, sleeping in, or doing schoolwork seemed like a better use of time, Dudick said. But Father Rich’s sessions at the bar have served as a reminder to Dudick that chuck can offer community, he said.

"I think it makes a lot of sense. It's a smaller step than showing up at church," Dudick added. "This kind of [casual atmosphere] brings people in."

Dudick said he has even been attending traditional services lately, looking for what he called a "greater understanding" of his faith.

The "Theology on Tap" concept has been tried elsewhere for years now. This new attempt in Burlington, though, may have extra urgency for Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

A recent Gallup survey placed Vermont dead last in terms of weekly church attendance. The state has even been called the least religious place in America.

"I'm not sure we ever could've kept them," said St. Michael's College sociologist Vince Bolduc, describing people who have stopped going to church, or who go less frequently than previous generations did. "Just because the culture has changed so much."

Bolduc, who is Catholic, noted his church and Protestant congregations alike are struggling with attracting and retaining millennials.

"Most religions could appear to be more friendly, more welcoming, a little less somber," Bolduc told necn.

Their biggest challenges, he said, appear to be competition from career and family, and a perception that religious institutions are out of touch.

"Without the people, there is no church," Bolduc said. "If we lose a couple of generations, with only a few people understanding complex theological things, I think civilization will have some problems. We've got to work hard with young people, or we’re going to have a lot of trouble in the future."

Vermont's Roman Catholic Bishop, Christopher Coyne, praised O'Donnell's new efforts. He pointed out that the goal isn't to mint more Catholics or to see dramatic increases in Mass attendance. Coyne explained it is more about re-energizing young Catholics who grew up in the church but who have become less involved with their faith over time.

"We can't just open the doors and expect people to come through our doors," Coyne told necn. "In fact, when we open the doors, a lot of people are leaving."

Bolduc said he expects to see more church leaders from different denominations embrace creative ideas to attract more members, especially young adults.

"Churches don't think like corporations, and priests and bishops don't think like chief executive officers, saying, 'We're losing customers, we're losing market share, what do we do to change this?'" Bolduc explained. "If they did, I think we’d see a lot more things like Theology on Tap."

O'Donnell made it clear the casual meetings in the bar should not be seen as a replacement for going to church. He said he regards them as more of a starting point. And when it comes to seeing young adults exploring a relationship with Christ, well, Father Rich O'Donnell will drink to that.

"I go home tonight feeling I've done the best I can for today," O'Donnell said, smiling.

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