Prof. Thomas Groome (Theology), director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, with students (L-R) Caroline Kondrat, Megan Pryor and JoAnne Harbert. They and their fellow 20 to 29 year-olds, says Groome, are "our best hope for the future" of the Catholic Church. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Welcoming a Generation of 'Tentmakers'
At 35 years, IREPM is seeing a whole new kind of student population
By Sean Smith
To Prof. Thomas Groome (Theology), they are modern-day tentmakers in the tradition of the Apostle Paul, who preached the gospel while supporting himself at his trade.
During the past few years, Groome has seen an influx of 20 to 29-year-olds enroll in the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, of which he is director. Now, for the first time in recent memory, they constitute the largest age group among IREPM degree students. [see related story]
While these 20-somethings in IREPM view their vocation as outside the traditional forms of vowed religious life, according to Groome, they are serious about participating in the formal ministries of the Catholic faith community while supporting themselves in other professions - like Paul, the original "tentmaker."
This demographic sea change, occurring as IREPM approaches its 35th anniversary this summer, has been no small transition for the institute, says Groome. IREPM has had to find ways to accommodate the experiences, backgrounds, interests and needs of this 20-29 group, which differ significantly from those of past generations and other, older student groups.
Then again, as Groome points out, the Catholic Church - like the world it inhabits - is a far different place than in 1971, when IREPM began offering programs to update mainly priests and nuns on changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. By his reckoning, the "tentmakers" he sees coming through IREPM's doors are "our best hope for the future. They will be the ones who work in Catholic adoption agencies, in shelters, recovery clinics, youth programs, or who will provide the leadership within their own parishes.
"There is much lament in our Church about a 'lack of vocation' among the young," he said. "We certainly do not rejoice over the paucity of those considering the priesthood or vowed religious life. But the fact is, this is an enthusiastic group of young people who are ready and willing to serve in the ecclesial ministries of the Church, though that ministry itself may not be their primary means of income. How can we turn them away?"
A decade ago, 20 to 29-year-olds accounted for only 17 percent of IREPM's 110 degree students; the largest age group were the 40 to 49-year-olds, who made up nearly a third of the IREPM degree student population. But as of fall 2003, IREPM's 169 students included 51 in the 20-29 group, or 30 percent of the total.
Who are the tentmakers and where do they come from? Groome says one of their most common shared characteristics is a defining volunteer outreach or service experience during or just after college that sparked their faith.
"Quite unsuspecting, they go off for the Jesuit Volunteers, or the Franciscans, or Maryknoll, or other volunteer and service programs in the US or overseas," he said, "and wind up getting drawn into the work of the gospel. They are moved by what they see in their service experience, and the contact with the poor and the powerless is life-changing and a source of conversion for them. They become committed to working for social justice and alleviating poverty, and doing so sustained by their Christian faith. Theirs is a Dorothy Day kind of Catholicism.
"One of the big attractions of IREPM for them is our offering of joint degree programs, especially the joint master's in pastoral ministry and master's in social work. This is how they will be tentmakers."
Groome sees the generation of younger Catholics these students represent as less in awe of the institutional Church. The sexual abuse scandal and its repercussions undoubtedly contributed to their distancing from the Church - but they seem rock-solid in their faith, he adds.
"Like many, they've been very troubled by the images of parishes closing, despite the efforts of parishioners to keep them open. They have a lot of concern as to how the Church will respond to the needs - spiritual, pastoral and otherwise - of its people."
But the controversy has not diminished "their hunger for exploring, discussing and developing their faith, and preparing themselves for life-long vocations in ecclesial ministries."
Three decades ago, he says, 80 percent of the 20 to 29-year-olds who came to IREPM were on their way to becoming priests or nuns and were usually involved in some kind of novitiate or spiritual preparation. Now, what this group of students needs most, Groome says, "is spiritual formation and deepening of their ecclesial identity and knowledge of the whole tradition of Catholic faith.
"Fortunately, we've been able to do that in ways our students find both imaginative and helpful, through retreats, workshops and other events and programs," Groome said. "But most of all, the students have an excellent theology faculty - from IREPM and the Theology Department - on which to draw.
"In our classes, we think it's extremely important for generations to learn from one another. Each has a gift for the other: The older student has the wisdom and the younger one, as The Bible says, 'dreams the dream.' Having the 25-year-old and the 45-year-old sitting together, sharing their perspectives on faith, is vital for collaborative ministry in the Church - and for the 25 and the 45-year-old in their own spiritual journey as well.
Reflecting other trends and areas of focus in its mission 35 years on, IREPM is preparing to launch four new programs this September: Hispanic ministry, parish religious education, high school religious teaching and hospital chaplaincy.
"These are exciting, and challenging, opportunities for us," said Groome. "Even as IREPM has to adapt to the generational change we see before us, the institute also is aware of changing needs in the Catholic Church and society, and we are committed to do all we can to prepare men and women who will serve the ministry of the Church in the 21st century. With the good theology and solid spiritual formation that IREPM provides, the Church will be well-served by this rising generation."