Catholic program is not meant to replace regular church services.
WASHINGTON — The regulars are seated at the bar at Ireland’s Own, a restaurant in Alexandria, Va., where the beer and the conversation are flowing.
Nothing seems unusual on this chilly Tuesday night in February — until the Rev. Daniel Hanley takes the stage.
“It’s great to be here,” Hanley says, leaning into the microphone, his black suit and white collar looking peculiar atop the pub’s bandstand. “I’d like to start with a prayer.”
Baseball caps are slipped off as patrons, most of them young men, make the sign of the cross and bow their heads while Hanley recites the Prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Hanley will continue like this for more than a half-hour, lecturing about duty, sainthood and the importance of daily devotion.
During that time, drinks are refilled and laughs are shared, but lest there be any doubt about the setting, the Catholics crammed into the smoky bar are intensely focused on the message. More than a few are taking notes. One man spends much of the evening with his eyes closed, fingers intertwined in prayer. A young woman weeps.
And little could make the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., happier.
“It’s the kind of stuff that gives you a shot in the arm,” said Hanley, 34, about the response. “It keeps you going. It strengthens you.”
Church leaders say the “sixpack seminars” are not intended to replace worship services. Instead, they are a way of integrating religion into parishioners’ daily lives, while building and sustaining church membership. Each seminar consists of six weekly sessions.
The concept is not new. The program was started in Chicago about 25 years ago. (The Diocese of Orlando offers these seminars in the Orlando area from time to time as well.)
Church leaders say the program provides just the right kind of outreach for young Catholics, some of whom are looking for a spiritual community and perhaps a chance to meet other Catholic singles. A cocktail after work isn’t a bad enticement, either.
The events are free and open to adults of any age and faith, although the target group is those 21 to 39.
Chris Terrell, 43, a lobbyist and media-relations manager, is a self-described Catholic and born-again Christian who attends Blessed Sacrament Catholic Community in Alexandria and McLean Bible Church.
Terrell said he goes to Theology on Tap to connect on a practical level with biblical teachings, as well as for the social opportunities. Keeping his motives in perspective, he said, takes the occasional reminder.
“I always have to check my heart before I go,” said Terrell, who lives in Arlington. “I have to make sure I have a word with the Lord and say, `Yeah, there are going to be some single ladies here, and it would be great to meet someone, Lord, but I want to make sure my focus is on you, and I’m going to learn something about living my life better.’ If the resulting effect is meeting ladies, so be it.”
Christopher Yurasko, 26, has been attending the seminars for more than two years with members of the Blessed Sacrament Young Adults. Yurasko said that he has considered the priesthood but has not yet heard the call. Seated near the stage, he opened a yellow pad, ready to take notes during the lecture and the 30-minute question-and-answer session that always follows.
“This is a wonderful experience,” said Yurasko, of Vienna, Va. “It’s helped a lot of people grow in their faith.”
Joe Totleben, 23, a software developer from Alexandria, attends Mass every day at 7 a.m. He plans to enter the Dominican order in July. Like others at the bar, he listened intently as Hanley talked about finding time to pray.
“This is an excuse to get out and talk about your faith,” Totleben said. “It’s fun.”
WHAT ALES YOU?
Fun, not prayer, was what Dave Duclos, 40, had in mind when he took a couple of out-of-town business colleagues to Ireland’s Own for after-dinner drinks. He wasn’t expecting a sermon. Still, Duclos, a Catholic, listened with interest as Hanley spoke.
“I spent 20 minutes trying to figure out what was going on,” Duclos said. “I can only imagine what the chatter (among my colleagues) will be in the car on the way back to the Sheraton.”
Pat Troy, proprietor of Ireland’s Own, said he was more than delighted to accommodate the program when church officials asked him if he would play host several years ago.
“Why wouldn’t I?” said Troy, who, along with his establishment, is an Old Town fixture.
Is the lifelong Catholic worried about upsetting patrons who don’t want a dose of religion with their Walsh Island fish and chips?
“People stay. They love it,” said Troy, seated before a painting depicting the biblical story of Noah’s ark. “If this was about Muslims or Judaism, I’d stay and listen. It’s about education. We all need to learn more.”
Kristin Martin moved to Arlington from Colorado in November. Like Terrell, she saw Theology on Tap as a good way to interact with other young singles.
“It’s a chance to meet other like-minded Catholics in a more relaxed atmosphere than say, being in some cold church basement,” said Martin, who works for the federal government. “It’s a chance to have a pint of Guinness in your hand and socialize.”
When the Northern Virginia program started, the seminars drew about 50 people a night, church officials said. These days, it’s often standing-room only, with as many as 150 people packing Ireland’s Own or Whitlow’s on Wilson in Arlington.
GETTING BACK IN TOUCH WITH CATHOLICISM
Hanley, a graduate of the University of Virginia, said he had stopped practicing his religion during his years of undergraduate study. It was a friend’s invitation to attend Mass where there would be “pretty girls” that wound up being the catalyst for his renewed spiritual devotion, and that was when he “met God as an adult,” he said.
Hanley said he has seen many young Catholics experience that kind of awakening, some at Theology on Tap.
“A lot of people haven’t had a connection with a priest since they were in the second grade,” Hanley said. “Here, they can walk right up and shake my hand. That’s big.”
Or maybe someone hasn’t been to confession in a long time and feels burdened. Perhaps, Hanley reasoned, the person doesn’t feel that God will grant forgiveness.
“We hope they see the face of Christ in us,” Hanley said. “Suddenly, they open up and they say, ‘Father, can I talk to you?’ And then, bam! There it is. That stuff happens in airports and all over the place.”
Maybe, it is suggested to Hanley, bars are a logical place for priests to do outreach. After all, they offer emotional and psychological counseling — a lot like bartenders.
“Only, we serve a much more potent cocktail,” Hanley said. “It’s heartening to see young people desiring to be close to God. That’s what I see. . . . Young people interested in knowing God more deeply.”