Campus Catholicism: Keeping Faith in Higher Education

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With graduation on the horizon, students are all but jumping out of their seats ready to shake the dust off and embark on the next adventure – college life. And while high schoolers may fantasize about dorm life and late nights, parents are praying knowing what the next four years have in store.

It’s during young adulthood when boy meets girl, lasting friendships are formed, kids discover their careers and natural gifts. It’s this time too that can make or break their faith.

With so much hanging in the balance, a student’s college years are the time to pursue Catholic living, because a life rooted in Jesus is a life of abiding peace and certainty of God’s will. Out from under mom and dad’s roof, now is the time for students to claim their faith, discover things they didn’t know, ask tough questions and make it their own. During the college years, many students leave the pew and very few return. In a time when so much formation is needed, what are some opportunities to stay true to the faith?

When considering higher education, Catholic universities may not seem like an immediate option, but the quality of scholarship wrapped in faith is one that can fortify a student’s life – from relationships to careers. Stephen Minnis, J.D., President of Benedictine College (B.C.) in Atchison, KS, says the school is thriving as a whole because of its Catholic identity. “We are mission driven and our purpose is to educate men and women in a community of faith and scholarship.” Faith and scholarship – the two naturally go hand-in-hand and will tend to the common life occurrences for young adults.

A little closer to home, the University of Dallas (U.D.) offers community strong in academics that arms its students in faith. James McGill, M.A. is an instructor in the School of Ministry at U.D. and asserted confidently that Catholic education must prepare students to be missionaries once they step off campus. “You can’t seek a Utopian Catholic society,” he said. “I don’t think the goal is to create the idea that you’re looking for a safe place where nothing that threatens or challenges faith is ever going to cross; you’re looking for a place that’s committed to give you the ability to negotiate the complexities of life as a faith-filled adult.”

McGill continued, “The genius of Christ’s ministry is people lived messy lives and he brought them to a bigger insight by meeting them where they were.”

A nail-on-the-head point to make. A recent Pew Research study found that 80% of college freshmen report being active in their faith, but by senior year that number dwindles down to 18% with a low return rate. At a time of faith crisis, schools like Benedictine and University of Dallas seek to answer questions and build faith in students rather than let it die.

But what if students have big plans for a state or secular private school? Maintaining and developing Catholic identity is just as possible, though the general approach will differ.

Bishop Michael Duca spent nine years as the chaplain and campus minister at Southern Methodist University (SMU), and during his time there he witnessed a joyful, spirit-filled student body. “Even though it is a Methodist University, almost 25 per cent of the campus students were Catholic,” said Bishop Duca.  “The most important gathering of our Catholic students was at Sunday Mass, but equally important was having an office and a visible presence.”

Bishop Duca also said that he was blessed to work with two women who served with him as campus ministers and they were always available to the students.

Catholic students often worked together to create a faith community. “We offered lectures, social events, daily Mass during Advent and Lent on the SMU campus,” said Bishop Duca. “We involved students in all areas of Church and liturgical life.  We also found ways to provide a Catholic presence at university events, parades and homecoming events. I was often asked to give a Catholic point of view to an open discussion planned by a campus group.”

Victoria Nguyen is a Neuroscience Major at Tulane and though Catholicism isn’t woven into the whole campus culture, she promises there are plenty of gems to be found. “FOCUS [Fellowship of Catholic University Students] is wonderful! We have three FOCUS missionaries…and they do everything from Bible studies, programming, serving at Mass and just hanging out with us.” Tulane’s Catholic Center is the place to go to find like-minded friends; students look forward to the weekly dinner following Sunday Mass. “It’s a really big thing and there’s always a[n]…announcement about the menu of the night and the event afterwards,” Victoria mentioned. “Sometimes we have speakers or praise and worship after. About 75-100 people come to supper and it’s awesome!”

In Shreveport, LSUS has a Catholic Student Union on campus that according to the school site “explores the journey of faith through prayer, worship, fellowship and service.”

The Diocese of Shreveport’s own Theology on Tap events in Shreveport, Monroe and Mansfield are fantastic ways to hang out with fellow young adult Catholics and gain some wisdom from featured speakers; but don’t underestimate the power of participating in your own parish, advises senior Chelsea Feducia. “I go to Mass every week [at Mary, Queen of Peace in Bossier City] where I recently have had the privilege of being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. I teach eighth grade Sunday School and I participate in ACTS events around the diocese.  There’s always Vacation Bible School, and I absolutely love volunteering… every summer for the children of my parish! It’s so fun!” Chelsea has found that community combined with personal devotion has been the key to developing her life as a Catholic, mentioning that frequent adoration and spiritual reading are powerful nourishment to her soul.

Louisiana Tech has a thriving Catholic Campus ministry, led by an elected leadership team of students and mentored by Brother Mike Ward, OFM. Catholic students at Tech gather together regularly for retreats, community service projects, pro-life events and even annual mission trips to Guatemala. Student Courtney Smith says, “Association of Catholic Tech Students (ACTS) members are encouraged to participate in all three of the retreats sponsored by ACTS throughout the year. The retreat programs at ACTS are just one aspect of the many opportunities for a Tech student to be Catholic at Tech.”

Likewise the University of Louisiana Monroe not only has a strong Catholic Campus ministry, but also a chapel that holds regular Masses for students.

“A good campus ministry on a Catholic college or secular campus will provide a needed connection to a student in a time of transition,” said Bishop Duca. “Many students discover how much they depended on their parents as their inspiration for getting involved in faith programs. They also find it surprisingly unnerving to go to Mass for the first time in a new church where they do not yet know any one. A good campus ministry will help provide Catholic students a home away from home, invite the student to take a more active part and guide them in making a more intentional decision in living their faith as a Catholic.”

Regardless of a student’s higher education destination, the most important study to pursue is faith. Questions will arise, life will change, and striking out on their own gives them an ability to own Catholicism like never before. In a time when many students fall away from the faith in their college years, considering schools and connecting with Catholic campus ministries that provide a strong Catholic community to care for the whole person – body, mind, and soul, is a sure way to beat the statistics.

by Katie Sciba & Jessica Rinaudo

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