The rapping priest, the Power Ranger, and the pope

The Catholic Thrive conference is finding creative ways to reach out to single Catholics

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By Kerry Weber

From the start, the stage was set for love. Literally. In front of a packed crowd attending “Catholic Thrive,” a conference for young adults and singles of all ages, a few brave individuals sat on a stage, separated by a divider. On one side: three bachelors. On the other: the Catholo-rette — short for Catholic bachelorette — prepared to ask the questions that would help her determine which bachelor would be the best match for her. With questions ranging from, “Are you a mama’s boy?” to “Do you think men and women can be friends?” she narrowed the field to one man with whom she would share the prize — dinner at a Manhattan restaurant.

The game was punctuated by jokes from Lino Rulli, who emceed the show and who is also the host of the Sirius XM Radio program The Catholic Guy. Rulli is himself single and, for several months, dated a woman he met during The Catholic Dating Game at the first Thrive conference in Anaheim, California. That time, he held the role of bachelor. Despite his good fortune, Rulli says participants shouldn’t be disappointed if one dinner doesn’t lead to a match made in heaven. “The point of Catholic Thrive isn’t, ‘Did you get engaged over the weekend?’ but ‘Did you meet some people who you can share your faith with?’” he says.

The sense of community Rulli describes is exactly what Thrive’s co-founder Dave Sloan hoped for when he began efforts to create an ongoing ministry for singles four years ago. Bright-eyed, muscular, and with a booming voice, Sloan introduced a variety of speakers throughout the weekend. Sloan is a well-known speaker himself, and he writes and speaks across the country about Theology of the Body — Pope John Paul II’s teachings on love, the nature of the human person, and the roles of men and women — as well as the struggles and blessings of his own single life.

The idea for Thrive grew from Sloan’s experience planning the National Catholic Singles Conferences with Anastasia Northrup, president of the Theology of the Body International Alliance. While these events were and continue to be successful, Sloan felt a need to take things one step further. He partnered with Dave Nevarez, who runs, to create a new brand designed to serve as a ministry rather than as a series of stand-alone events.

“We’re thinking in the big picture,” Sloan says. The New York conference was the second in a series Sloan plans to continue throughout 2010 in locations ranging from Kansas City, Missouri, to Sydney, Australia. It also represents the beginning of a new and deliberate way of reaching out to single people of all ages in the Church, a ministry often overlooked, says Sloan. “To my knowledge there are no singles ministers employed full time for any diocese in America,” Sloan says. “The term Catholics are comfortable with is ‘young adults,’ which is a fine term, but it isn’t singles ministry. We’re trying to create a thriving, vibrant, relevant ministry that makes sense to the biggest demographic out there.”

About half of the event’s 300 participants came from outside New York City, including from as far away as Texas and California. Sloan says the lack of ministries and resources for singles in most cities makes events like this worth the trip.

In planning the three-day event, Sloan asked himself, “What do singles need?” The answer, at least in relation to the conference, includes rosaries and a rapping priest, motivational talks from married and single men and women, a dance, a Christian music concert, a picnic in Central Park, and a closing Mass celebrated by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. “I think you can be authentically Catholic and still reach a broad range of people,” he says. “The speakers aren’t catechists. It’s about connecting to people in a way that makes sense where they are in their lives right now.”

Katherine Alvarado, 20, a Bronx native and a junior at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), says the explanations offered regarding Theology of the Body were particularly helpful. “Not only do the speakers simplify it, but they use life examples and make it attractive to us as single Catholics,” she says.

Also helpful was the generally relaxed atmosphere of the event. A sunny afternoon provided a cheerful setting for the Thrive picnic in Central Park, and while some scanned the crowd for that certain someone, most seemed content to sip a soda and chat with new friends. Participants dug into the rows of sandwiches and giant bowls of pasta and potato salad, served family style, which perhaps echoed Sloan’s hope for the event.

He says many singles long for a sense of a family, and he wants Catholic Thrive to address that need, at least in part. “We want to create as many of the elements of family life as we can: a party, prayer, social and fellowship time, games, good books and movies, and music. We want it to be a celebration, like a family reunion.” And while Sloan can’t play matchmaker, he hopes the conferences will help people make connections — romantic or not — that will ease loneliness and build community.

Julian Kollias, 28, lives in Brooklyn and says he knows all too well the experience of feeling alone in New York City. “It’s frustrating,” says Kollias. “I’m at that stage where you come home and there’s no one to welcome you. It’s not that I’m desperate, but it hurts. And I think a lot of people feel that deep-rooted pain. I see it as a burden. I don’t have much family and I live on my own and it’s hard.”

A desire for community inspired Nancy Reinauer, 56, of Warwick, New York, to attend Thrive. “I’ve always been single and I thought, Maybe it’s time for me to find out what’s going on in the single world,” she says. And what she’s found has encouraged her. “I feel like I’m here with a group of people in the same condition that I’m in. I would like to change it, I’d like to find some wonderful guy that I’m attracted to, if it’s God’s will. We’ll see. We want to be able to be as strong as we can; this is a support system of sorts.”

The conference speakers offered a variety of insights into the anxieties that some feel about their single state as well as advice on building healthy relationships based in Christ. Jessica Rey, a 27-year-old Catholic actress best known for her role as the white Power Ranger on the television series “Disney’s Power Rangers: Wild Force,” wore a flower in her hair as she addressed an all-female audience. Women of all ages raised their hands, eager to ask advice, and Rey provided answers from her own experience.

“You can’t let your life revolve around, ‘Where’s my husband?’ You’ll go crazy,” says Rey, who also spends time speaking to teens and young adults about the virtues of chastity and modesty. “You can’t give of yourself unless you accept that love that Jesus gives to you. This should be our focus, not, ‘Who should I fall in love with?’” she says.

Motivational speaker Matthew Kelly, 36, (see related story) was married in the spring of 2009. He advised participants to take advantage of their single state in order to serve others. “Unfortunately, our culture treats singleness like a disease we should get over as quickly as possible,” Kelly says. “We discover ourselves through service to others, and that prepares us to be with another in marriage. People who have never served find relationships inconvenient.”

The idea of giving to others motivates Sloan in his ministry. “My personal drive is always to reach out to whatever group needs to be included, whatever group is left out.” Sloan says. But he adds that organizing the conference does have some additional personal benefits: “It’s a great way to meet beautiful, holy Catholic women.”

Meeting people with similar Catholic values isn’t easy, even in a city as large as New York, says Joseph Piccirillo, 25, a music teacher at Bayside High School in Queens. But the Thrive conference has restored his faith in the New York City dating scene. He also was inspired by the Catholic men’s groups represented at the conference, such as the Knights of Columbus and The King’s Men. “I think there’s a stigma that Catholic guys [are] awkward and quiet and not really wanting to socialize, and these guys are really community people and I like that,” Piccirillo says.

Tara Moynihan, 30, a Queens native and a purchaser for Coca-Cola, says she hopes the event helps dispel stereotypes about single Catholic women, as well. “Not every Catholic girl is sitting at home saying a Rosary and waiting for Mr. Right to knock on her door.”

She says the talk by Father Stan Fortuna, CFR, about selfless love offered good advice. “[Fortuna] affirmed that if you’re going into a marriage you need to be willing to give,” she says. “We’re in a society where everyone is tit for tat. But with sacrificial love you give without looking to receive.”  CD

Kerry Weber

Kerry Weber is an assistant editor for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and earned her B.A. from Providence College. Prior to enrolling at Columbia, Kerry was an associate editor for Catholic Digest. She also has worked as a staff reporter for The Greenwich Post and The Catholic Observer and as a producer and reporter for Real to Reel a television news magazine. After graduation, she volunteered for one year as a full-time special-education teacher in St. Michaels, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Her interests include running, reading, social justice issues, hiking, the Boston Red Sox, quilting, road trips, sheep, Nuts4Nuts, good concerts, tea, pie, and the work of Flannery O’Connor and Nick Hornby.