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Catholic Church Reaches Young Adults with 'Theology on Tap' Talks at Restaurants, Bars - 2003-01-01

Dozens of Roman Catholic dioceses across the United States are holding discussions about faith in unexpected places, hoping to appeal to people in their 20s and 30s. The program is called "Theology on Tap," and some of the non-denominational sessions are held in restaurants, and even bars, as Ann-Elise Henzl discovered in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Brewbaker's in downtown Green Bay resembles many pubs. Its exposed brick walls are covered with framed historic photos, and the brass finish on railings and ceiling fans glimmers in the dim light. But on occasion, the conversation at Brewbaker's doesn't sound like typical tavern fare.

"I want you to imagine that all the worst things you've done in your life are going to begin to appear in the palm of your hand, and as they appear in indelible ink I want you to close your hand and make a fist so that no one can see those things," said Lee Nagel at one of the monthly discussions on subjects like relationships, spirituality and ethics. On this evening, he asks about 40 people in the bar to take part in an exercise to illustrate the importance of forgiveness.

"For you to be free in life you need to open yourself up and allow forgiveness into your soul. So you're going to try to open up this other person's hand. There's only three rules: you cannot bite, pinch, or tickle.

Participant Celia Van de Hey, 28, says the relaxed setting makes it easy for young adults to talk about religion, especially if they're turned off by the structure of a Catholic church service.

"Either that, or they're people who've been gone [from the Church]," she said. "They've gone away for awhile and they're just starting to integrate back in and because they've led a life. ... I mean I go out and drink, not a problem you know, but they're comfortable with that atmosphere."

The informal setting and approach are key to the success of "Theology on Tap," according to Sister Peg Gabik, who runs the program in northeastern Wisconsin. "The roots of it are Catholic, so it's going to have a very a strong Christian flavor for sure," said Sister Peg, "but that the subject is broad enough that you can talk about it in spiritual contexts, you can talk about God without talking about a particular denomination."

The Green Bay diocese started "Theology on Tap" last summer. But it's not a new idea. The program was founded 21 years ago in the archdiocese of Chicago by Father John Cusick, the Director of Young Adult Ministry. He says it grew out of college students' need to examine tough spiritual issues as they entered adulthood.

Church works best when it learns to listen, and when it learns to listen and listen to the hungers and the concerns and the wants of its people. Then it can go back to the drawing boards and say "What's the best way we can feed that hunger, or respond to those wants?"

But not all Catholics feel taking the Church's message into a bar is the proper response, says Sister Peg. "I've had some people call to complain about it, not thinking that this is a good setting for the church to be and I just listen and say that for the young adults, they feel like this is where they need it," she said.

And they can find it in at least 50 dioceses across the United States. Father Cusick has written a lengthy manual on the program, but he says there's flexibility from one diocese to the next. While many select bars and restaurants for their discussions, others think informal talks in church buildings work just as well.