Quest for young Catholics

John Drinkwater reaches back to hold the hand of a disabled Jamaican child during a mission trip this summer.

Go to a church in town with contemporary services and you’ll likely find young adults who prefer the modern praise music and sermons that emphasize practical modern applications of Scripture.

But not in an art-adorned meeting room at Pauline Books and Media, a Catholic bookstore on King Street.

Around a long table sit two dozen Catholic young professionals in their 20s and early 30s — a pilot, medical physicist, medical resident, English professor, engineer, interior designer, you name it — with Bibles propped open in front of them.

More than a quarter are converts to Catholicism. A few are “reverts,” or those who fell away from the church they grew up in but recently returned.

Suffice it say, theirs is not a superficial discussion. Nor did they come for one.

On a recent evening, they tackle Mark 11:27-33, a passage in which Jewish religious leaders asked Jesus where he got his authority. Jesus turned the question back on them: Well, how did they think John the Baptist received his authority?

It was a toughie. In the minds of many, John was a prophet. So answering one way would anger the masses; answering another meant admitting that John, and by extension Jesus, spoke with divine authority.

The leaders’ response: “We don’t know.”

It’s a familiar enough spot. Who hasn’t felt caught between peers or supervisors, even the broader culture, and a thorny truth?

“The truth makes demands of you,” says Jacob Whelan, an internal medicine resident at MUSC and a Catholic convert. “You can tell they aren’t willing to accept the truth.”

As with the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, Whelan adds, biblical truth can make uncomfortable demands on the faithful even today, especially in our self-oriented society that allows for spiritual cherry picking.

“With truth comes a responsibility to live those truths,” adds Richard White, the group’s leader who is pursuing his master’s degree in theology.

Yet, acknowledging the authority of the Roman Catholic Church means that these young adults, seeking to make their marks on a large and often unruly world, don’t have to figure everything out for themselves. That, ultimately, is reassuring.

“It’s scary to be the arbiter of truth. But to know you are part of a framework is a good thing,” says Maggie Lally, an English professor at The Citadel.

Katherine Lyons, a medical physicist, adds that the faithful must take the Bible in its entirety and have the courage to apply it to real-life issues, such as deciding which presidential candidate to vote for in a few weeks. White jokes back that the election season’s plentiful fact-checking underscores that people hunger to define and know “truth.”

And the Catholic Church, which teaches that it is one true church founded by Christ, isn’t known for bending its teachings of truth with the winds of cultural change. It is precisely that adherence to ancient beliefs and tradition that appeals to the growing ranks of this group.

After an hour of discussion, the lively but respectful conversation lulls, and White hops up with a grin and turns to the bookstore’s chapel door:

“Let’s go pray!”

If faith is the foundation of this group, friendship is the glue. However, it started out like countless other Bible studies. Read designated Scripture. Meet. Discuss. Go home. Read designated Scripture. Discuss. Go home.

The group began in 2007 when Sister Jane Livingston of the Daughters of St. Paul encouraged two young adults to start a Bible study in the courtyard behind the bookstore. Back then, the group was connected to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

It drew five to seven people regularly.

“It was small, but the level of discussion was awesome,” said White, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard who stepped in to lead the group in 2010 when a founder moved away.

They bumped up Bible studies to every week. And they began to go out afterward for dinner, drinks and a chance to socialize with like-minded acquaintances.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just a group of people meeting to talk Scripture. They became friends and fellow lovers of the ancient faith, a nucleus of young professionals all hungry to delve more deeply into worship and the knowledge of Catholicism.

The ranks ballooned.

Valerie Soop credits the group in part for her conversion to Catholicism. She’d been attending since its inception but left for several years while volunteering in India and then going to graduate school overseas.

When she returned to Charleston in 2010, she rejoined the Bible study and found “it had just exploded.”

“I was floored by how much it had grown,” Soop says. “It had become a group of friends and just mushroomed like that.”

Then, Diocese of Charelston Bishop Robert Guglielmone launched an effort to reach out to young adults, especially those in their 20s.

“The church recognizes that a lot of young adults have left the church. We want to bring them back,” Soop says. But they won’t do that with modern praise music or big-screen TVs.

They will do it by offering a community of other young adults who value the faith’s ancient rites and traditions and deeper discussions of Scripture.

“The ones who have come back want that substance,” Soop says. “The fact that the Catholic Church has 2,000 years of history appeals to them. It’s not a turnoff.”

Several members said that while they want a church that uplifts them, faith must go beyond entertainment. It requires substance. And consistency.

“The Catholic Church has a daunting feel, and that intimidates some people,” White concedes. “But that’s also what draws people in. Its core issues have remained the same for centuries.”

And draw people in it has. In 2011, the group (for 18- to 35-year-olds) expanded beyond the Cathedral. It started a second Bible study at Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant with a vision to be a regional young adult group to serve the entire Charleston area.

They also chose a new name: Lucis Via, Latin for “way of light.” It describes the call to young adults to be Christ’s light in the world, a reflection of Jesus saying, “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Then in January, Guglielmone hired Soop, 26, to lead the effort and take it statewide. She now serves as associate director of young adult ministry for the statewide diocese.

Today, about 200 young adults receive Lucis Via’s emails. A core of 50 are very active. The Bible study meets at the Pauline Books and Media in Charleston, Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant and St. John the Beloved in Summerville. Another highly active young adult group operates in the Upstate.

And on Oct. 13, all of them will don matching Lucis Via T-shirts and caravan to Columbia, where the bishop and the Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations, will speak at a Walk by Faith Young Adult Rally. It will provide a chance for Catholic young adults from across South Carolina to meet up, enjoy some music, worship and bond.

“Our goal is to have these vibrant communities,” Soop said. “It’s a whole community of friends who you can ask questions with and grow in the faith with.”

And for people in their 20s and 30s, that means meeting like-minded people to befriend, date and even marry.

Soop and her boyfriend met through Lucis Via. White met his fiancee at a Christ Our King event for students. And Whelan and his wife just welcomed the group’s first baby.

If faith is the foundation and friendship the glue of this group, then service is the reward.

Lucis Via members tackle regular service projects, especially with the diocese’s Neighborhood House. On Saturdays, they gather unsold food from the farmers market at Marion Square and deliver it to the Neighborhood House, where they also help with a soup kitchen.

They also serve breakfast at MUSC’s Children’s Hospital. And they held a fundraiser called the Fun Nun Bowl for the Daughters of St. Paul. It drew more than 100 people.

They even embarked on a mission trip to Jamaica in July with Mustard Seed Communities — 21 young adults altogether — to serve mentally and physically disabled children. They raised $20,000 and paid their own way.

“It was an eye-opener for all of us,” Soop says. “I’d never spent so much time with people with mental and physical disabilities. I was just struck by their joy.”

Joy?

The take-away message: You can see Christ’s face in the disadvantaged and poor. They plan to return next summer with even more Catholic young adults drawn to Lucis Via, all striving to spread Christ’s light in the world.

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.