February 14, 2023 // Diocese
Ablaze: Turning Young Adults into Missionary Disciples
Ablaze Mission is a Catholic apostolate that “strives to set the hearts of young adults ablaze with the Holy Spirit, who sends them out to set the world on fire as missionary disciples.” It takes its name from St. Catherine of Siena’s statement, “If you are who you are meant to be, you will set the world ablaze!”
“I love this work. Every week I get to see its impact as young adults grow in their living relationship with the Lord,” said Sean Allen, Founder and President of Ablaze Mission, which currently serves more than 100 young adults in the South Bend area. Allen sees this mission as his calling, not something he dreamed up, but a path on which God has clearly led him step by step.
Growing up in Spring Lake, Michigan, Allen went to Mass with his family every Sunday but figured being confirmed in 6th grade marked the end of his faith formation. His focus in public school was sports and academics. He realized he had a choice to make about church when he enrolled at the University of Michigan. There was a Catholic church across the street from his dorm so he went to Mass most Sundays, but he didn’t seek any further involvement.
When he moved to San Diego to start a job as an electrical engineer, there were no young adults in the parishes closest to his home, but he decided he still considered himself Catholic, so he began attending St. Brigid in an area where more young professionals lived. However, he was the only “religious one” in his circle of friends. “I was an hour-a-week Catholic,” he admits. “The rest of the week, I worked hard and I played hard.” In balmy San Diego, there were four seasons of flag football. He and his friends traveled all over the country to ski, surf, and scuba dive. He loved his work and got into a dating relationship that lasted more than a year.
“In retrospect,” he said, “I was living the American dream.”
And then God stepped in to show Allen who was in charge. The romance ended and a sports injury sidelined him for more than six months. There had to be more to life than his job! He started asking the big questions about life’s meaning. But he was asking them with an elementary school understanding of God: Why are you punishing me? What did I do to deserve this? Finally, he made an appointment with his pastor, who listened attentively then sat back, sighed, and asked, “Do you own a Bible?”
“Yeah,” he said. At least he once owned a Bible. He couldn’t help thinking, I hope I didn’t just lie to a priest. The pastor told him to read Psalm 139, so he went home and found his pristine Bible in the box of things that moved from one place to another without ever being unpacked. That Psalm didn’t speak to him, but since God had cleared his schedule, he figured he might as well find out what was in the Bible. “I started at page one, and I read everything, including the footnotes.” That took more than a year, but Allen reached a few conclusions. He discovered he did know quite a few of the stories in the Bible from attending Mass, but he also realized he had no idea how the story of the Bible fit together. Gradually he began to see it as the ongoing saga of God’s relationship with His people, who kept turning away from Him no matter how many times He rescued them. “Hmm,” he thought. “That’s a lot like me. I keep wandering off and trying to figure out my own way.”
Another thing he did with his spare time was to study Spanish, so when he learned that St. Brigid sent a group to Tijuana every month to help with a construction project, he decided to go along. Many of his companions were also young professionals, solid people who took their faith seriously. He struck up a friendship with Johnny, who invited him to make a Cursillo (a three-day period of spiritual renewal).
Allen had never been on an overnight retreat and he said the experience was amazing. Here were normal men talking openly about their faith, as if they had the same kind of relationship with God as the people in the Bible. Team members also showed how much they cared and were involved in each other’s lives. Allen had no dramatic moment of conversion, but that Cursillo changed his life. “It was like drinking out of a fire hose.” The next morning, he felt led to go to Mass before work “even though I’m not a morning person.” When he knelt down in the pew, he couldn’t say his usual memorized prayers. All he could manage was, “Thank you.”
Realizing he had a lot of catching up to do, he calls it a period of intense spiritual growth when he was like a sponge. He began to listen to spiritual books on tape and seek people with whom to journey by attending the Cursillo reunion and the church young adult group. He asked a religious sister to be his spiritual director, and she taught him how to pray. In lectio divina, the words of Scripture began to seem relevant to his life. He volunteered to help with RCIA, where he had a lot to learn. He began taking night classes offered by the diocese. “I was always the one asking the questions,” he confessed. “Every time I learned something, it opened up more I wanted to learn.”
Then the pieces started aligning for a major change in direction. People began to see his leadership potential, but he didn’t feel qualified to lead a Bible study. California began to seem too far away from his family, where his nieces and nephews were growing up without him. When he learned about the Masters of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame, its combination of theology and ministry seemed to check all the boxes. However, he didn’t have the prerequisites for the program, so he quit his electrical engineering job and spent two years taking philosophy classes at the University of California, especially enjoying the debates in his philosophy of religion class.
He said Notre Dame’s was an “awesome program,” and he found instant community with the other students. After a field placement as a hospital chaplain, he was sent to St. Pius X in Granger to help with marriage prep. Coming from the robust young adult program in California, he was surprised to learn that didn’t exist in the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. In parishes that had staff tasked with this ministry, it was tacked on to their primary responsibility. He consulted St. Pius X’s pastor, Monsignor Bill Schooler, about starting young adult ministry as his third-year leadership experience.
When Allen graduated in 2009, he considered moving back to San Diego or working in Chicago. Instead, he wound up creating his own position, dividing his time between St. Pius X and the diocese. Finding he couldn’t do justice to both, he did young adult ministry for the diocese full-time until he resigned to start Ablaze on Oct. 22, 2021, the feast of Pope St. John Paul II, who initiated World Youth Day. Bishop Rhoades fully supported the work, and the diocese provided a matching grant to help get it started.
Bishop Rhoades said of Ablaze at the beginning, “I am convinced that Ablaze Mission has much potential to inspire our young people to embrace a life of discipleship and be missionaries, agents of evangelization, among their peers and beyond.”
Meanwhile, in spring of 2021, Allen got a notice from Notre Dame about their Master’s program in Non-Profit Administration. The deadline was only two weeks away, but his acceptance came in plenty of time. He said he had no idea how much he didn’t know, but he’s been able to put every course to immediate use in starting his own non-profit, Ablaze.
“I had a vision for Ablaze but God has been massaging it,” said Allen. He said he sees the model as having one foot where young adults are, extending the church to them, and one foot in the church, connecting them with the institution. So, for example, the eight-week Alive series, Allen’s own program drawing elements from Cursillo and Alpha and witness talks given by young adults, is held after hours at The General Deli & Cafe, while there are currently Bible study groups at St. Therese Little Flower and St. Joseph in South Bend. These groups utilize lectio divina to unpack the Scriptures for the coming Sunday. At the end, each participant is invited to share how God spoke to them through this passage. There are many “Aha!” moments, vivid growth in understanding who Jesus is and how He interacts with people.
Growth in discipleship involves discernment through the Called and Gifted process and Intentional Discipleship, a 12-week series focused on walking with young adults to help them grow in their spiritual journeys, as well as training them to walk with and help their peers grow in the same way. “The mark of a disciple is to make time in your schedule to grow in your faith, and so someone else can grow,” said Allen.
There are also community activities like ice skating and an Epiphany party to which young adults are encouraged to invite friends. Personal invitation is much more effective than social media. “We’re looking for impact, not numbers,” explained Allen. “We seek to meet people where they are — but not leave them where they are.”
Ablaze is geared for young adults from age 18 through their 30s, but isn’t focused on campus ministry. “Our goal is to reach people as early as possible,” said Allen. Since people are marrying later these days, most participants are single, although married people are also welcome.
Eventually Allen would love to see Ablaze replicated in other places. A recent offshoot of the ministry has been a book study of Return by Brandon Vogt, co-led by Allen and Lisa Everett, diocesan Director of Marriage and Family Ministry. This is aimed at parents concerned for young adult children who no longer practice their faith. For Lent, there is also a men’s group, Exodus Lent, based on the pillars of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity.
The next Alive series begins on March 1. To learn more, visit ablazemission.org.
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