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Father Donald J. Planty Jr., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Va., chatted with young people in an undated photo during a P3 evangelization event in the parish gym.
Father Donald J. Planty Jr., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Va., chatted with young people in an undated photo during a P3 evangelization event in the parish gym.
Photo Credit: Courtesy St. Charles Catholic Church

‘Prayer, Penance and Pub’

St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington, Virginia, embraces the P3 of young adult evangelization

ARLINGTON, Va. — In the hushed and darkened sanctuary of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, it’s the Wednesday evening after New Year’s and gently glowing Christmas trees and snow white poinsettias still beautify the altar.

People begin to arrive at the vibrant urban parish church right across the river from the nation’s capital, drawn by the weekly promise of P3: “Prayer, Penance and Pub.”

Over several hours, St. Charles Borromeo’s “P3” event attendees are offered eucharistic adoration, confession, a meditation from a priest and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament — the evening’s “prayer” and “penance” — followed by fellowship and community (“pub” time with beer and wine).

Father Donald J. Planty Jr., St. Charles Borromeo’s pastor, said that when Bishop Paul S. Loverde, the former shepherd of the Diocese of Arlington, assigned him to the parish, he was given some “specific marching orders.”

“And one of them was, ‘Evangelize the young adults,’” Father Planty said. “So we remain committed to evangelizing young adults in general, and to P3 in particular.”

That commitment has yielded 500 P3 sessions and meditations; 750 hours of exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; 1,500 hours of confessions heard by priests, averaging 50 confessions heard per week and 25,000 confessions heard over the past decade, according to figures provided by the Arlington Diocese. Attendance averages 70 per week, totalling nearly 35,000 participants in the 10 years since P3’s 2013 founding.

“People will say to me, ‘You have a real active young adult group here.’ Well, we don’t have a young adult group — we have a young adult parish,” emphasized Father Planty, who recently received a diocesan award for young adult ministry.

The significance of that is obvious for a Church that struggles to both attract and retain young members. A 2020 report from Springtide Research Institute, “The State of Religion & Young People,” noted that almost half of young Catholics age 13-25 have “little to no trust” in the Catholic Church. The survey of 10,000 young people noted that only one in three Catholic respondents said they attend religious gatherings outside of Mass on a regular basis.

Apostolates like P3, then, are a promising way to both evangelize and build community.

“I think it’s really helping to continue to nourish those that already are faithful Catholics,” Father Planty said. “But sometimes you get Catholics bringing non-Catholics or friends that are coming back to the Church who have been away a while.”

Attendance has remained consistent since P3’s inception, with people commuting from neighboring states.

“Really, what it’s offering that’s attractive is something for everyone,” explained Father Planty. “You may just want to go to confession, but you may also want to have some drinks with some good Catholic friends. You might just want to come in and have a little quiet adoration time and go to confession, but not do the pub time. Some people just come for the meditation,” he said. “So it’s whatever pillars people want to take advantage of.”

P3’s flexible model, the pastor said, can easily be adopted by other parishes. “It’s ultimately very simple. You need a priest who can offer adoration and Benediction, and hear confessions,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t be replicated and tailored to the specific demographic or pastoral needs of any parish.”

At the end of adoration Jan. 3, following the Benediction and the return of the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle, the young crowd adjourned to the adjoining school gym for pub time.

“The community’s wonderful here. I’ve made some really good friends through this; people who share the same values and the same emphasis on living a life of faith,” Keegan McArdle, originally from Indiana, said. McArdle, 24, who also used to live in Washington, said that “I would make the trek still, because it was just a wonderful, routine way to have a coherent sense of faith and community.”

St. Charles Borromeo’s seminarian Jonathan Amgott, 35, a former lawyer who spent time at both a large Washington firm and the U.S. Justice Department said that “people have many entry points to growing in their faith, and P3 offers a kind of low barrier to entry. … You can come, spend quiet time with Jesus, and then have some social time — and oh, by the way, confession is available.”

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