Last week, I had a phone interview with Julianne Stanz shortly before she led a professional enrichment day for 150 people at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, on “How to Reach the ‘Nones’—Start With Jesus.”
Ms. Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis. She is also a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on Catechesis and Evangelization.
You most likely have heard about the “Nones” by now. The moniker, which represents those who check the box that says “None” when asked for their religious affiliation, is an unfortunate one, according to Ms. Stanz, who substituted the term “unaffiliated” much more frequently during our conversation.
“Everyone is somewhere on their journey, even if they don’t recognize where God is,” she said. “God is always present to us.
“No one is lost to God unless they want to be,” said Ms. Stanz, who authored a book, “Start With Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church, Developing Disciples of Christ,” published by Loyola Press last fall.
Still, a growing percentage of the population is not affiliated with any religion. Today, 26 percent of U.S. adults identify as unaffiliated, Ms. Stanz said. Almost four in five, or 79 percent, of those who disaffiliate from religion do so before age 24.
Ms. Stanz also shared a few numbers specific to Catholics that were even worse. The median age of a young person who stops identifying as Catholic is about age 13. For every new Catholic convert, there are 6.5 former Catholics. One in four Hispanics is a former Catholic.
“That gives us pause to think about our own outreach to the Hispanic population as well,” she said.
Often, the unaffiliated are not strangers, but rather “our friends, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles who have stopped practicing their faith,” Ms. Stanz said.
They are less likely “to believe a sage on a stage, than a guide on the side—someone who is walking with them, journeying with them through life,” she said.
“How do we share our story of how God is moving in our lives?” she asked. “If they see us dealing with challenge, suffering and difficulty, and finding meaning in that, they will wonder what the source of that hope, that peace, that joy, is.”
Ms. Stanz offered many pithy expressions like the “share prayer,” a form of intercessory prayer that is not as common for Catholics, but that has proved popular, especially among young adults in her diocese.
It involves listening, and not just to the person who is being prayed for. “You are listening to the Holy Spirit,” she said. “You can bring that person into the prayer. Young people don’t feel they are listened to.”
“We have to be able to have the difficult conversations… They want to be able to talk about the things that are weighing them down,” Ms. Stanz said. “We have to be able to shed light on that, and the Light of the Gospel. We have to bring meaning from that pain.”
Her audience at the seminary included pastors and other priests, deacons, seminarians, directors and coordinators of religious education, directors of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and youth ministers.
She told me she planned to speak to them about several things, including The Landscape of Our Parishes, Data Around Who the Unaffiliated Are and The Parish Response.
The day was sponsored by the archdiocesan Catechetical Office, the Office of Youth Ministry, the Office of the Catechumenate and the Office of Priest Personnel.
“Start With Jesus” is not just a slogan for Ms. Stanz. She kept returning to it. For today’s young people, she said, “It’s very important for us…to start with here’s who the person of Jesus is, here’s what He shares with us, and here’s how that is present in our Church.”