success stories

A Success Story in Campus Ministry

Catholic campus ministers reach out to college students nationwide
By Willy Thorn
Catholic News Service

As dormitories filled, bookstore shelves emptied and class lists were finalized, college and university campus ministers nationwide were employing both novel and traditional means of bringing faith development into higher education.

With a projected 15.6 million students enrolled in colleges and universities this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, campus ministers have never faced a greater challenge -- or had such an expansive opportunity.

The college experience offers adventure, as well as new challenges, according to Joseph Varacalli, founder of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y.

He mentioned homesickness, academic demands, professors with conflicting values and intense temptations from alcohol, drugs, and/or sexual promiscuity as potential challenges to incoming students.

"Students tend to be influenced by the ideas that are thrown at them," he said. "College can be a life-changing time. It's important for the Catholic student to be aware of this and to be prepared."

One response by campus ministers in the largely unchurched state of Oregon is the new campus ministry center, apartment structure and coffee house complex dubbed Trinity Court at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

"In the crazy life of the student these days, we can be a place to come, ask questions, have some fun and learn more about their faith," said Sue Gifford, director of Catholic campus ministry at the university.

She said a fall retreat, Bible study, Masses in the center's chapel, prayer groups and a class on the Second Vatican Council are scheduled at Trinity Court for the year ahead, and events featuring sports, games, pizza and the like are in the works.

"This residential community offers real integration of university life and personal, spiritual life," said Father Michael Maslowsky, who oversees campus ministry in the Archdiocese of Portland. "Because of the center's very public nature and the deli coffee shop, it's going to be able to be a great witness to the larger community. Trinity Court also offers us a kind of credibility that makes us a more interesting dialogue partner on campus."

Residential projects like the one in Corvallis are beginning to pop up at schools across the country, including Florida State University, according to Michael Galligan-Stierle of the U.S. Catholic bishops' education office.

The bishops recently established a subcommittee that, in collaboration with a national assembly of campus ministers, will set policy and standards on the heels of new research emphasizing the ministry's importance.

A March 2002 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that Catholics who took part in campus ministry as students are more active and generous when it comes to their faith. Of the 1,200 Catholics interviewed, those active in campus ministry are more involved in religious activity outside Mass, donate more money to the church and have a higher rate of vocational discernment.

"Perhaps the best way to describe campus ministry is to say it's evangelization on campus ... getting the Gospel message out to students," said Father Michael Szupper, campus minister at the University of Delaware. "A part of evangelization is prayer, to remind them of the power of prayer."

For him, campus ministry takes many forms: dining with students on campus, celebrating Mass, sponsoring spiritual programs, engaging in impromptu discussions on beliefs, academics and family concerns.

The St. Thomas More Oratory, a few blocks off campus, also hosts peanut-butter-and-jelly ministry. On most nights, its basement social hall becomes a study hall, stocked with sandwich fixings.

"The building is basically open 24 hours a day," Father Szupper said. "A quiet place to study on campus is a rarity. They see us, we see them, and they become familiar with the oratory as a Catholic center."

At the University of Oregon, in Eugene, a team of student leaders is improving hospitality by welcoming new and returning students through a "Survival Kit for Residence Life," personal birthday greetings and mentoring programs.

The Newman Center at the university has lined up a full slate of retreats and speakers, as well as a spring break service project in Mexico and game and coffee house nights to draw students to the center.

At Portland State University, the "trend is toward student-led stuff," said campus minister Glenn Rymsza. He urges Catholic students to share their lives and faith with peers -- because students learn best from one another -- and plans to have the center co-sponsor social events so "other groups with noble ends that are non-Christian can then see that we have the same values."

Along with Father Maslowsky, Rymsza teaches courses in church history, Scripture and the person of Jesus. The Newman club also offers weekly free lunches and a quarterly retreat.

Bible studies, large group leadership training and one-on-one mentorship are a large part of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Founded in 1998, the organization takes recent college graduates, trains them and then sends them right back onto college campuses to evangelize and catechize their peers. It is now on 13 campuses, including Montana State University in Bozeman, the University of Colorado in Boulder and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

At Troy State University in Troy, Ala., FOCUS staff threw a free barbeque in the middle of campus and signed students up for Bible studies in the student center. The response there has been positive, according to Father James Dean, pastor of St. Martin of Tours, the county's only Catholic parish.

"Offering a Bible study to young Southerners is like putting a child in a candy store," he said.