You’ll love this revolutionary approach to young adult ministry

5 mins read
young adult evangelization
Father Donald J. Planty Jr., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Va., chats with young people in an undated photo during a "P3" evangelization event in the parish gym. Attendees of the event are offered offered Eucharistic adoration, confession, a meditation from a priest and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament -- the evening's "prayer" and "penance" -- followed by fellowship and community ("pub" time with beer and wine). (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Charles Catholic Church)

ARLINGTON, Va. (OSV News) — In the hushed and darkened sanctuary of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, it’s the Wednesday evening after New Year’s and gently glowing Christmas trees and snow white poinsettias still beautify the altar.

People begin to arrive at the vibrant urban parish church right across the river from the nation’s capital — some singly, some in pairs and universally young — drawn by the weekly promise of the three P’s: “Prayer, Penance and Pub.”

Over several hours, St. Charles Borromeo’s “P3” event attendees are offered Eucharistic adoration, confession, a meditation from a priest and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament — the evening’s “prayer” and “penance” — followed by fellowship and community (“pub” time with beer and wine).

Father Donald J. Planty Jr., St. Charles’ pastor, told OSV News that when Bishop Paul S. Loverde, the former shepherd of the Diocese of Arlington, assigned him to the parish, he was given some “specific marching orders.”

“And one of them was, ‘Evangelize the young adults,'” Father Planty said. “So we remain committed to evangelizing young adults in general, and to P3 in particular.”

A proven record of evangelization

That commitment has yielded 500 P3 sessions and meditations; 750 hours of exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; 1,500 hours of confessions heard by priests, averaging 50 confessions heard per week and 25,000 confessions heard over the past decade, according to figures provided by the Arlington Diocese. Attendance averages 70 per week, totaling nearly 35,000 participants in the 10 years since P3’s 2013 founding.

“People will say to me, ‘You have a real active young adult group here.’ Well, we don’t have a young adult group — we have a young adult parish,” emphasized Father Planty, who recently won a diocesan award for young adult ministry.

Some 200 young people join Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., Father Donald J. Planty Jr., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, and other clergy during “P3” in the parish gym. (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Charles Catholic Church)

Home to the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and Amazon’s HQ2, Virginia’s Arlington County also is among the most highly educated counties in America, with 76% of residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. As the most urban parish in the Arlington Diocese — which has 446,500 registered Catholics, 275 priests and 70 parishes — St. Charles Borromeo’s parish boundaries boast five Metro subway stops. At least three-quarters of parish residents are in their 20s and 30s.

“We have a very single, young, professional, well-educated demographic in the parish,” Father Planty shared.

Four pillars to reach out to young Catholics

The significance of that statistic is obvious for a church that struggles to both attract and retain young members. A 2020 report from Springtide Research Institute, “The State of Religion & Young People,” noted that almost half of young Catholics age 13-25 have “little to no trust” in the Catholic Church. The survey of 10,000 young people noted that only one in three Catholic respondents said they attend on a regular basis religious gatherings outside of Mass.

Apostolates like P3, then, are a promising way to both evangelize and build community.

Father Donald J. Planty Jr., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Va., is pictured in an undated photo offering meditation to young people during a “P3” evangelization event at his parish. (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Charles Catholic Church)

“I think more than anything it’s about keeping people in the church,” Father Planty said. “I’m always all about the four pillars; Acts 2:42: ‘They gathered for the teaching of the apostles; the fellowship; the prayers; and the breaking of the bread.’ Those are the four pillars of the Christian life.”

A model for Christian life

Father Planty observed that those “four pillars of the Christian life” from Acts are what P3 is offering young adults.

“I think it’s really helping to continue to nourish those that already are faithful Catholics,” he said. “But sometimes you get Catholics bringing non-Catholics, or friends that are coming back to the church who have been away a while.”

Attendance has remained consistent since P3’s inception, with people even commuting from neighboring states.

“Really, what it’s offering that’s attractive is something for everyone,” explained Father Planty. “You may just want to go to confession, but you may also want to have some drinks with some good Catholic friends. You might just want to come in and have a little quiet adoration time and go to confession, but not do the pub time. Some people just come for the meditation,” he said. “So it’s whatever pillars people want to take advantage of.”

P3’s flexible model, the pastor said, can easily be adopted by other parishes.

“It’s ultimately very simple. You need a priest who can offer adoration and benediction, and hear confessions,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t be replicated, and tailored to the specific demographic or pastoral needs of any parish.”

‘Look where you’re going’

Back in St. Charles Borromeo’s sanctuary, Father David Dufresne, the parochial vicar, offered the evening’s meditation.

Riffing on the connection between January and Janus — the two-faced Roman deity who simultaneously gazes both backward and forward, presiding over beginnings, transitions and endings — Father Dufresne recalled an earlier assignment to a city parish. It had notoriously limited street parking; so he decided to bike rather than drive around town.

But his exhilaration with his new wheels — the first time he rode a bicycle since childhood — evaporated in the midst of speeding and honking cars. Consulting YouTube, he gained some advice about biking in a metropolis: “Look where you’re going.”

“That was it,” Father Dufresne said. “That’s what I was failing to do. What was I doing? I was looking at that person; I was looking at the cars; I was making sure somebody wasn’t going to sideswipe me — I was looking everywhere else except where I was going,” he recalled. “Look where you’re going — and that’s where you will go. Simple as that.”

At the end of adoration, following the Benediction and the return of the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle, the young crowd adjourned to the adjoining school gym for pub time.

Connecting the spiritual life and social life

“The community’s wonderful here. I’ve made some really good friends through this; people who share the same values and the same emphasis on living a life of faith,” Keegan McArdle, originally from Indiana, told OSV News. McArdle, 24, who also used to live in Washington, said that “I would make the trek still, because it was just a wonderful, routine way to have a coherent sense of faith and community.”

Emma Wilenta, 23, said she’s been going to P3 since moving from New Jersey to Arlington a year ago.

“I was thrilled to find a parish with such a vibrant young adult community,” Wilenta told OSV News. “I come most weeks,” she said, drawn by “the chance to connect with friends that I already know, and also to meet new friends; new people in the community. … It’s been a blessing.”

St. Charles Borromeo’s seminarian Jonathan Amgott, 35, a former lawyer who spent time at both a large Washington firm and the Justice Department told OSV News that “people have many entry points to growing in their faith, and P3 offers a kind of low barrier to entry. … You can come, spend quiet time with Jesus, and then have some social time — and oh, by the way, confession is available.”

Father Planty stressed P3’s spiritual and social components are directly connected.

“The idea of the social pub time is that the intimacy with the Lord, and the common focus on the Lord — as everyone is in church together in adoration; listening to the message — spills over into the kind of conversations people are having,” he said.

“Men and women are looking for places to gather together with like-minded Catholics,” Father Planty reflected, and together they can “share the faith and fellowship.”

Kimberley Heatherington

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.