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Becoming his witnesses: Reaching young adult Catholics through evangelization

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Religious, young adult leaders and volunteers formed lifelong friendships and valuable spiritual communities at the 1witness gathering. (Photo: IAN VERGARA)

With the growing rate of American young adults identifying as “nones” — nonaffiliation with a particular religion or faith — the message of authentic encounter and evangelization is more important than ever before.

According to a report conducted last year by the Public Religion Research Institute, the Catholic Church has suffered the largest decline — about 10 percent. While a third (31 percent) of Americans were raised in a Catholic home, only 1 in 5 (21 percent) still identify as Catholic. Among young adults ages 18-29, only 15 percent still say they are Catholic.

“There are so many good-hearted, enthusiastic young adults, and my main role is to bring them together and give them guidance,” said Bishop David O’Connell, episcopal vicar for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“We want to support them in community, set loose the power of the Gospel, with power and strength, gather together and set them upon this whole area,” he continued. “When young adults find Jesus and experience his love and new life, they are willing to give everything to follow him, and to help others.”

More than 500 young adults from the L.A. Archdiocese and surrounding dioceses packed the Turner Campus Center at Azusa Pacific University on July 22 for the first 1witness. The daylong conference is Bishop O’Connell’s initiative to reach out and connect young adults and ministry leaders in the San Gabriel Valley region and surrounding areas.

Coordinated by Keith and Iwona Major, 1witness aims to bridge the gap between the Church and young adults, battling a culture of faithlessness.

“1witness is the entry point for the Holy Spirit to come into their lives, and totally transform them,” explained Keith. “This is the rally call.”

The Majors also founded MajorChange, an organization dedicated to reuniting the Church through charismatic evangelization, building authentic relationships and encountering God through metanoia, missions and media.

“We want to cross-pollinate our experiences as evangelical charismatics and as Catholics. … When we moved to Southern California last year, we sensed that people are feeling disconnected, that there is no practical understanding of how to build small faith communities, to build leaders and send them forth,” said Iwona. “We want to expand these tiny clusters of groups, to form a community of people coming together to pursue Jesus’ heart, and fill the ache in their own hearts.”

As former evangelical pastors and missionaries, Keith and Iwona have served youths and young adults in Russia, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They helped start churches and ministries, organize faith conferences and joined the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. They converted to Catholicism in 2010, and Iwona has continued to serve as a missionary and teacher, while Keith became the director of marketing and media at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

At the beginning of the year, Bishop O’Connell met with the Majors and young adult leaders in the region to plan a conference geared toward young adult leaders.

“What inspired us [to organize 1witness] was meeting with so many young adults in the region who are feeling lost and isolated. To see when they do have an encounter with Jesus, they become so on fire,” said Bishop O’Connell. “We want to bring [young adults] together in community, to support them, so they can continue to have that experience of the new life in Jesus.”

The recent 1witness gathering began with morning Mass, praise and worship from Koinonia John the Baptist Community and a keynote session on spiritual healing from Bishop O’Connell and Father Artur Bilski.

“The good news is that Jesus Christ, right now, offers you forgiveness … but this forgiveness has to be released through you, and the power of this forgiveness happens when you decide to forgive,” said Father Bilski during his meditation.

Following the talks, attendees joined “encounter” breakout sessions on topics like leadership, freedom, loneliness and practically living the spiritual life. Incorporating the 1witness mission of forming authentic community, young adults also sat in “hubs” during lunch and dinner breaks, discussing how to become better witnesses of the faith.

An immersive, all-day adoration experience was also installed in a campus classroom, with music from the worship band Resound LA.

In the afternoon, speakers and session leaders included Cheryl Allen, executive director of the Pasadena International House of Prayer; ministry leader and TV host Shawn Bolz; NET Ministries leader Cord Dorcey; and Patrick Reis, coordinator of Encounter Ministries.

“Our design was made to know God-sized love and emotions. God wants us to carry the peace of Him wherever we go,” said Allen.

During his session “Heavenly Whispers,” Bolz inspired the audience with his gift of prophetic wisdom. “When God shows you something, when he puts something in your heart, it’s so you can love with a capacity that is not your own,” he said. “A lot of times, he does not say things directly … but he gives us these incredible tools, like prophecy, to hear his heart and thoughts.”

Young adult attendees and volunteers at 1witness were moved by the transformative, healing power of the spirit and fellowship with others.

“I was deeply moved at the sight of hundreds of young adults eager to deepen their faith and become true witnesses to the Gospel. As a volunteer, I was bombarded with the question, ‘Where is the adoration chapel?’ countless times, and saw lines of people yearning for prayer and healing,” said Al Tan from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Rowland Heights. “It was so important for me to see others share a unique desire to grow deeper, and to know that as a young Catholic adult, I am not alone.”

Krizia Estrada, an attendee from St. Emydius in Lynwood, will serve for the next year at Maggie’s Place, a hospitality center for women and children. She was inspired by the encounters she experienced at 1witness.

“I truly needed it and am so grateful. I needed community,” she said. “Providentially, I met a young man visiting from Phoenix, Arizona, where I will be serving as a missionary!”

“It was amazing to see so many Catholics congregated from all over Southern California. The biggest challenge I found was being in such a charismatic environment; it was definitely something new to me,” said Kyle Wingson from St. John XXIII in Rialto. “I’ve hardly had close friends, let alone them being Catholic. That’s why I feel these events are so essential. By ourselves, we are only a single candle, which will waver and eventually burn out, but as a community we are like a roaring fire which cannot be contained.”

Ryan Ragasa from St. Martha in Murrieta agreed. “Many people of different denominations can still learn to love each other under Christ,” he said. “These events help foster the community and develop one another to grow in Christ, because you truly cannot do that alone.”

Giselle Tarango, a women’s ministry leader from St. Paul the Apostle in Chino Hills, said she was deeply moved by the “safe space” 1witness offered for the healing of hearts.

“As a church family, Bishop [O’Connell] invited us to renounce the enemy’s lies out loud. I will never forget the power in hundreds of voices saying aloud, ‘I renounce the spirit of anxiety, the spirit of self-hate, of pornography,’ ” she recalled. “This moment was so empowering, allowing God’s love to be bigger than the hurts in my heart and the lies I believed. It was amazing to witness God’s love so visible.”

The Majors emphasized that events and conferences that offer the one-day “spiritual high” should only be the beginning of an ongoing, transformative journey of faith.

“We need this to be continual and committal,” said Keith. “We want to challenge them more — for Catholics to live radically for Jesus.”

The 1witness gathering — which was livestreamed, with all talks available online — also kicked off MajorChange’s first, nine-month theological “school of the heart” in the San Gabriel Region. Stone to Flesh will launch in September, focusing on topics like identity, evangelization in the Book of Acts and the Holy Spirit. The estimated cost will be $100 a month, with weekly classes, events, service and prayer opportunities happening throughout the L.A. Archdiocese.

“Millennials are a distinct group because of the atmosphere they are growing up in. We are trying to understand and respond to their needs, with the depth of tradition and the riches of the Church that are already there,” explained Iwona. “We want to heal the brokenhearted, train the leaders and release them to be the hands and feet of Christ. It will be the first evangelization-based school of its kind, focusing on supernatural ministry.”

With different tracks like contemplative prayer, the Bible and media and worship, Stone to Flesh aims to turn hardened hearts into hearts of flesh by helping young adult Catholics to experience the true vibrancy of the modern Church.

“Our hearts our aching to receive the presence of God, the gift of himself, the Holy Spirit,” said Michael Ramirez, a young adult leader at St. Denis in Diamond Bar, 1witness coordinator and Stone to Flesh student.

“If we don’t continue post-event, if we don’t draw deeper into relationship with Jesus, our community and our parish life, if we don’t continue to stir up the gifts we received in baptism or at 1witness, then the enemy will succeed in choking off the seeds of the kingdom,” he said. “Bishop [O’Connell] said we are the ‘blessed generation,’ because we have deep longings and wounds that require a deep response of our God.”

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