8 Keys to Campus Ministry
Franciscan University of Steubenville. Benedictine College. Christendom College. University of Dallas. Wyoming Catholic College. Ave Maria University. Thomas Aquinas College. University of Nebraska. All these schools have something in common: a significant and outspoken population practically dripping with Catholic identity. A few days ago, my friend Fr. Robert Matya, the pastor at the University of Nebraska Newman Center, posted this image on his Facebook wall. This was the first Mass of the new school year, packed with standing room only. It was not a Sunday Mass. It was not a Holy Day of Obligation. This Mass was Thursday, August 23, at 10pm. Imagine: college students on a (very) secular campus arriving in droves for Mass late in the evening in the middle of the week. To the doomsayers who insist the Church must change or face extinction, I give you proof to the contrary. The faith is alive and well among the youth of the Church.
After seeing that picture, I considered all the different kinds of posts I could write, but I decided to use those things I’m grateful for as a diving board for discussion on campus ministry. I hope that this list will inspire others to consider the reasons for the resurgence of the faith among young people, and to apply the same principles to their own programs.
- Belonging – This certainly isn’t the primary purpose for a campus ministry program (lest I come across as a fluffy theology blogger), but it was the first thing that impacted me and made me stick around at the Newman Center. My dorm opened before the others, meaning that I arrived before the flood of new students and before any formal welcoming events for the Newman Center. Having been a seminarian the year before, I was in the habit of attending daily Mass, so I walked down to the Newman Center expecting to sneak in the back unnoticed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The first person to approach me, Erin, welcomed me as if I was an old friend and I was quickly invited to a gathering off-campus. A few months later, another Newmanite (as we called ourselves) brought some very secularized, punk-rock-type friends to another off-campus gathering. We were playing a very sober game, something I figured would be off-putting, but my friend reported that his guests later told him it was the most welcome they had felt anywhere. Young people want to belong to a genuine community – without being patronized.
- Liturgy – Of course, when I walked into that chapel, I also assumed that, following the reputation of many college campus ministries, it would be some sort of “pajama Mass” or otherwise profane retooling of the Sacred Liturgy. Instead, I found a room full of kneeling students, some in veils, praying in earnest. The Mass was simple and beautiful, and the homily was edifying. Throughout that year, I found that good liturgy abounded. I even attended my first Latin Mass at a Carmelite convent nearby.
- Orthodoxy – At seminary a year earlier, I had been part of an underground group of seminarians who gathered secretly to discuss the errors being taught in our theology classes. It was a pleasant surprise at a secular college not to have to meet clandestinely with other faithful Catholics. Virtually everyone I met at the University of Nebraska Newman Center was solidly orthodox – any errors in their theology could easily be attributed to honest mistake – and that made it a very welcoming place for those of us who, just wanting the Church to be the Church, were most supportive of her mission. Orthodoxy strengthens young people in their faith and unites them for the Church’s central purpose: evangelization.
- The Challenge – Why does orthodoxy mean so much to young people these days? They’ve been told their entire lives that they can do anything they want, that they shouldn’t let rules stand in their way, and that the truth should be diluted in order to make it more palatable. Where’s the challenge in that? We human beings were made for a purpose. The human spirit goes against the stream. It’s human nature to build something, and the more difficult the task, the more inspired we are to press on. What good for the soul is a truth that has been watered down so as to lose the challenge? Young people love being told to come as they are, but they find “stay as you are” nothing short of patronizing. They want a challenge. They want to become the best they can be: heroes, leaders, geniuses, and – if they are well-catechized – saints.
- Pro-Life – There are few things in this world that draw more youth together than the March for Life, and that should be a real testament to the pro-life orientation of the younger generation. As they grow up, polls are finding the US population increasingly vocal against abortion as an older generation struggles to cling to the ideology that kills their grandchildren. It goes beyond abortion, too. In my time at the Newman Center, I never met a single person who supported contraceptives, and the topic came up a lot. The speaker we had during the Terri Schiavo case drew an audience of well over 100. Our views on the dignity of life united us and kept us focused on being the change we wished to see.
- Evangelization – University of Nebraska was the second campus to add FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students). Not only did it give a central place to the Gospel, but it united the Newmanites in a spirit of Evangelical Catholicism, a very strong force in the young Church. FOCUS also gets approval from the true measure of any evangelization method: it made students into evangelists. Not only were my peers found debating fundamentalist preachers (think Westboro Baptist) on the quad, a great many of them became FOCUS missionaries themselves, some of them still serving in key roles 5 years after graduation.
- Cleanliness – When I attended the Newman Center, Confession was available before every Mass throughout the week and the line was always long. For those who’ve experienced a truly great Confession, keeping the soul clean becomes a first priority. Many priests don’t make Confession very available because they never see more than a few people in line. It isn’t for lack of sinners. Many people simply have never heard about the need for Confession from the pulpit. It’ll take time, but if you make it available, they will come, and once they’ve encountered Christ in the Confessional, they will come again and again. Young people are in the midst of the first ponderings of an existentialist struggle. Why not preach on the meaning of their lives as the call to sanctity and then offer them Confession frequently?
- Spirituality – Aside from Mass (offered twice every weekday and multiple times on weekends) and Confession (available before every Mass), there were many other spiritual opportunities throughout the year. Adoration was practically perpetual during daylight hours. We had a 40 hours devotion once during the year. We frequently prayed Night Prayer together as a community. Group rosaries were common. I remember being a little surprised when, taking a 10 minute trip with a friend, he said, “We have just enough time for a chaplet. You want to lead?” It was a community soaked in prayer.
Surely, there will be naysayers out there who, for ideological reasons, will deny the effectiveness of orthodoxy and traditional liturgy, will rage against FOCUS, or complain about how difficult it is to make time for Confession. For the lay people who fall into this category, I can only point to the picture at the top of this post. It works. For the pastors who share in this mindset, I know that sometimes running a parish means money speaks louder than words, so here’s a link to the Newman Center’s website, complete with a tabulation of the $10 million they’ve raised so far for their renovation. That’s 10 million little green portraits of George Washington set aside for chapel renovation, a Catholic frat house, a Catholic sorority, and a new community center. Using the 8 keys I’ve mentioned above, under the leadership of a visionary pastor, they have grown to the point of bursting at the seams and requiring a whole new wardrobe. More astonishingly, in a time of economic crisis, they are doing remarkably well in striving toward their goal for expansion. Keep the faith and it will keep you.