Summit kicks off yearlong focus on youth and family engagement

Anne Marie Amacher From left, Daniel House of St. Mary Parish in Sigourney, Andrew Hovey of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf and Danelle Peitz of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison discuss their thoughts of a photo regarding post-resurrection stories. The Diocese of Davenport kicked off its second year synodal summit that focuses on youth and family engagement on June 22 at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City.

By Lindsay Steele and
Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — During the Universal Synod on Synodality, Catholics in the Diocese of Davenport had the opportunity to share their joys and concerns about the Church. A major theme emerged.

“As we listened to people, the number one thing that filled their hearts, that broke their hearts, was youth and family engagement,” Deacon Ryan Burchett said during a Synodal Summit June 22 at St. Patrick Parish. Burchett, a diocesan advisory committee member, explained that family dynamics have changed, so the Church must evolve in how it reaches out to young people. “We’re looking at this not just as ‘let’s fire up a new youth group,’ but ‘how do we walk with the family as a whole to make sure our young people are being formed properly in the faith?’”

In 2023, the diocese embarked on a three-year synodal journey to explore issues of interest to local Catholics. The first year focused on welcoming and belonging, a good starting point, Deacon Burchett said. The focus of year two — youth and family engagement — drew more than 100 parish and school representatives to this year’s summit.


Denise Utter, a Chicago-based speaker, coach and writer, offered a keynote presentation on the importance of parents and family in the faith formation process. It is no longer enough for youths to learn about the faith in a classroom setting, she said. A rising number of adults who were raised Catholic no longer attend Mass and while the COVID-19 pandemic is a common scapegoat, this disaffiliation began emerging more than 50 years ago. “There is no magic bullet” for reversing this trend but parents and other household members have a unique opportunity to show children how to embrace and live out the faith beyond the classroom setting. “Day to day interactions are what matter,” she said. “If you’re not having faith conversations and practices at home, (programming alone) does little to transmit the faith.”

Parishes and schools can support parents and community members through engaging programming — in-person, online or a combination of both. Often, this means challenging the status quo of dropping off youths for an hour of religious education each week.

Utter suggests that Catholic entities form committees to pray and to listen to as many community members as possible about their needs and concerns. Continue to listen to them while considering new formats and programming. “It’s going to be a process over years,” she said. “We have to take risks. You might feel the ground shift beneath you. You’re going to learn a lot from this process.”

One simple step parishes and schools can take toward engaging families is transforming mandatory parent meetings into on-ramps to deeper involvement. “Provide hospitality, give them time to talk to each other, give them time to talk about their children. When you ask them to talk about their children, their energy level goes up tremendously.” Avoid interrogating or quizzing parents on their religious knowledge and practices. Don’t spend the whole meeting “talking at” parents, Utter suggested.

Lay leaders from some diocesan parishes and schools provided insights about experimenting with family-centered religious education models. St. Mary Parish in Pella is finding success with a small-group religious education model, explained Paulina Loaiza, the parish’s director of faith formation and youth ministry. Groups of 6-8 youths of similar age and gender gather with a high school-aged leader and an adult leader who guide them in religious education, faith sharing and activities. It may be too early to determine lasting effects on retention and engagement among the youths, but the program has had a significant effect on the growing number of teen and adult volunteers. “They grew while leading, engaging in a way they weren’t before,” Loaiza explained. “The more we did life together, the more we saw families getting engaged.” The number of teens who stop going to Mass after confirmation has dropped and many are inviting friends.

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport reevaluated its faith formation model during the pandemic. The parish experimented with a monthly family faith formation program but “excuses came in, and I understood them,” said Susan Stanforth, director of faith formation. “We have great Catholic families in the pews but they are all very busy.” It was time to start listening to families and to find a program that worked for them. Now, the parish offers a meal followed by formation twice a month. Parents appreciate having someone else cook a meal and while their children are in the classroom, parents can choose to decompress, socialize or participate in sessions designed for them. “It did more than just fill bellies. It brought together our community,” Stanforth said.

Anne Marie Amacher
From left, Kayla Marino, Dennis Marino, Karen Marino and Amanda Brent of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington-West Burlington, discuss ideas regarding youth and family engagement at the synodal summit June 22 at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City.

St. Paul the Apostle Parish and School in Davenport envisions itself as a single entity and by doing so, engages families better. “We’re developing a vision and a plan and finding ways to work together,” said Michelle Herrington, director of parish life. More than 95% of students are parishioners, added Principal Julie Delaney. The community is working to engage families through a monthly Households of Faith program, which includes adoration, Mass, a meal and age-specific formation for youths and adults. “The topic is the same, so conversations can continue at home,” Herrington said. The school adjusts its schedule to avoid conflicts on Households of Faith night and teachers refrain from assigning homework. “We are working to reclaim Wednesday night as church night.”

After presenting, panelists addressed participants’ questions and concerns. Some said they appreciated hearing about successful family-centered programs but wondered if they would work in smaller or clustered parishes. Utter explained that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. She encouraged participants to move forward, to “listen to people and take hope.”

Sarah Layton, a participant from Sacred Heart Parish in Newton, said the event was enlightening and gave good guidance and direction for the future. Participant Abbie Huinker of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City attended the summit with fellow parishioner Ann Struve. “This topic is near and dear to our hearts,” she told The Catholic Messenger.

Nancy Boll of St. Mary Parish in Pella said, “I was able to hear where other parishes are at and get ideas from others.” Linda Sander of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Lost Nation, a part of the St. Patrick Cluster in Clinton County, said she felt enlightened and empowered attending the summit. She appreciated the opportunity to interact with leaders from other parishes, share ideas and meet others who are interested in sharing God’s word.

Father Jake Greiner, pastor of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington-West Burlington and St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville, said the summit was a “great opportunity to bring someone else in and share ideas of what has worked in different places. She (Utter) was a great facilitator.” He said it was refreshing to hear that there is no one-size-fits all solution, and that all parishes need to discern and address concerns and ideas.


The summit is just the beginning of the diocese’s deep dive into youth and family engagement, said Marianne Agnoli, diocesan coordinator for Marriage and Family Life. The diocese will use feedback from surveys and summit participants as inspiration for a series of upcoming Zoom sessions. Additional resources and a Synodal Summit recording are available at

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