Fr. Ryan Connors, assistant pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in East Greenwich, RI, answers a question from the audience at the recent "Grill the Priest" event organized by the Diocese of Providence’s Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation. (Photo credit: Laura Kilgus)
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 allespecially if older
folks bring a young person who may no longer be practicing their
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.
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.
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.
Taniele Tucker of Greenville, RI asks a question during the Grill Priest event held at Dave and Busters in Providence. (Photo credit: Laura Kilgus)
Kenneythe diocese’s Vicar General, Moderator of the Curia, and master
of ceremonies at last month’s Grill the Priestremembers 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
RCIAwhich 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 whilein 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
The format and response
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.”
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.
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.
An audience of more than 150 enjoys a night out at Dave and Busters for Grill the Priest. (Photo credit: Laura Kilgus)
Soon the event began. After a few light-hearted ice breaking activities came some ninety minutes of questioning.
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
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 plannedand failedSatanic 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.
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
faithespecially defending the Eucharistwhile 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.”
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.”
Monsignor Albert Kenney, vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Diocese of Providence, moderates the event. (Photo credit: Laura Kilgus)
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
spiritualityabout 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
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.
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,”
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
youto hear the Gospelif 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.”