“Six priests walking into a bar…” could open a joke. But on a Friday night in May, a Dominican and five diocesan priests walked into a Dave and Busters in Providence Place Mall to share a meal with some 150 young people, answer their questions, and witness to the Gospel.
And yes, they occasionally brought the house down with a joke.
“Grill the Priest” is one of many outreach efforts organized by the Diocese of Providence’s Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation. While the intended audience for these question-and-answer events are those in their 20s and 30s, they are open to all—especially if older folks bring a young person who may no longer be practicing their Catholic faith.
Based on similar events in other dioceses, the Providence style of grilling clergy put five priests up front in a theatre-style dining room at a location popular with young people. The clerics sat on bar stools, holding microphones under spot lights, as if they were about to belt out a Frank Sinatra number. But even without song, many in the audience used the word “fun” to describe the event.
“Helpful” was another. Within the confines of the secular, the questions and answers struck to the core of our existence in a fallen world and the salvific activity of an incarnational God who is love.
“Young adults take this moment as a great way to invite friends that they know may not be engaged in their faith or parish community,” said Lisa Gulino, who heads up religious education and evangelization efforts in the Diocese of Providence. She said that several people who attended last year’s event have renewed their commitment to weekly Sunday Mass, and one young man was now coming into the Church.
Monsignor Albert Kenney—the diocese’s Vicar General, Moderator of the Curia, and master of ceremonies at last month’s Grill the Priest—remembers that one young man well. For that event, Monsignor Kenney was up front answering questions. The young man stood and asked whether he should enter the Church. He had been brought up Christian and had been visiting a number of parishes in Rhode Island, but he wasn’t sure if becoming a Catholic was for him.
“I grabbed the mic and said ‘Come aboard!’” Kenney said, his voice mimicking the invitation he offered a year ago. He explained that he wanted to seize the moment with joy and welcome rather than with a checklist of discernment and a primer on signing up for RCIA—which the young man eventually did enter.
“I didn’t know what became of this young man but about a month later I got a call in the chancery and it was him,” Kenney said. “We chatted for a while—in a less public way, obviously, which was helpful. Because of his questions, I was able to suggest courses of study and a particular school with a good Newman Center.”
The format and response
Providence’s Grill the Priest provided no ground rules for the questions asked, other than to be courteous. But advanced publicity did prime the pump: “Have questions? Maybe you’ve wondered about God, faith, and religion. Maybe you have questions like, Why does that Catholic teach that? Come ask panel of priests your deepest or even funniest questions.”
Tickets were $15, which helped cover some of the costs for the facility and buffet. With Dave and Busters wait staff providing access a full bar just outside the event’s private room, everything was available for a Friday night out with friends and faith.
Prior to the grilling, the first hour was a time for sharing meals and conversation. Clusters of friends from youth groups across the region mixed with each other and with seminarians, clergy, representatives of Relevant Radio, and a theology professors from nearby Providence College. Those informal conversations alone seemed worth the price of admission.
One guest asked Fr. Jaime Garcia, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo parish in Providence, what it was like to walk through an urban shopping mall in collar on a Friday evening.
“I always wear my collar when I go out,” he said. “It’s so good to do because I get stopped by people. They ask for blessings, or to bless a religious chain,” he said. Garcia, who was participating in Grill the Priest for the first time, said that he was “a little anxious” about the night but he was delighted to be in attendance, especially if someone from the diocese’s Spanish-speaking community needed assistance.
Soon the event began. After a few light-hearted ice breaking activities came some ninety minutes of questioning.
Does God forgive me at confession if I don’t keep going to Mass? Should I go to the wedding of a Catholic if they’re being married outside of the Church? Why would Jesus condemn gay people? Did Christ partake of the transubstantiated bread and wine at the Last Supper? Why are so many Catholic colleges and schools not acting Catholic? Why does God allow us to suffer so much? How can I pray better? What is the role of women in the Church? Does God use our dreams to communicate with us? How do I answer friends who say they don’t have to go to confession to be forgiven?
A common line of questioning was related to increasing persecution of the Church, in small ways and large. Coming only a few days after the planned—and failed—Satanic Black Mass at Harvard University, only an hour’s drive from Providence, the crowd expressed delight with the massive turnout for a Eucharistic Procession through Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few had taken part in it. They were also unsettled that such an anti-Catholic event would be taking place at all.
A young man who was from Harvard asked why more Catholics don’t get involved and fight against persecution. The question shifted the grilling from the priests to everyone in attendance. The clerics answered with appreciation for all those who are publicly defending the faith—especially defending the Eucharist—while exhorting everyone else that disciples of Christ need to respond to a culture that is growing less understanding of Catholicism.
Diocesan chancellor Fr. Timothy Reilly noted that Catholics in the Diocese of Providence have had their own struggles of late. Many in the audience nodded in recognition as he ticked off recent events, such as the removal of a 1960 prayer banner at the Cranston West High School, a gift from the school’s inaugural graduating class. Fr. Reilly then connected the dots of a growing intolerance to the Church and to God, concluding that “a country that takes away God deserves what it gets.”
“Events like these highlight the need for ministry to young adults in the diocese and in parishes,” said Michelle Donovan, a young mother who works in the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation. “Young adults are hungry for the truths of our Catholic Faith. In particular, they want to know how they are to live the faith in a practical way in their everyday lives.”
Comparing last year’s Grill the Priest with this year’s, Monsignor Kenney was surprised at the different tone and questioning. “Last year the questions were mostly on morality, on hot-button issues. This year it there was a lot about spirituality—about how to live the faith every day.”
He saw that dichotomy as an indicator of the different benefits that the format provides. A night out with friends for Catholic young people offers an opportunity to share faith experiences and support each other in ways that can’t happen with their non-practicing and non-Catholic friends and families.
While Providence’s 2014 Grill the Priest seemed to fill this need, the 2013 event had met another: to allow young people who are not practicing or not Catholic with an opportunity to experience the faith and question it in a setting outside of a church.
“Grill the Priest is both honest and non-threatening,” said Fr. George Nixon, an associate pastor at St. Philips parish in Greenville, Rhode Island. Nixon had used the question about the role of women in the Church to celebrate the role of women religious. “We need more religious sisters,” he said.
When asked about his experience taking questions for his second year, Fr. Hyacinth Marie Cordell, O.P., Associate Pastor at St. Pius V parish in Providence, said that “no matter what the question, our answers must be rooted in love. People are much more willing to hear you—to hear the Gospel—if we take the time to be with them and speak truth to them with love.”
It would seem that a great many were willing to hear what the priests had to say. Much of the audience lingered for some forty minutes of informal questioning, either one-on-one or in small groups.
As he stood and watched the conversations continue, Monsignor Kenney said that he happy with how things went. He asked a young priest, Fr. Ryan Connors, Associate Pastor at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, about his first experience “up front.”
“The New Evangelization is alive in Rhode Island,” Connors said. He added that questions about faith should not be obstacles to deeper conversion, but a chance to “learn the truth about the Lord which alone sets free,” he said. “There is an incredible desire by young people to go deeper, to be both spiritual and practical in understanding their faith.”
Fr. Connors paused, then added, “The Church is alive and she is young.”