Campus Ministry: The Challenge and the Promise
Parents: Do you worry about your son’s or daughter’s faith as you anticipate them going off to college? There are reasons why you should. And there are reasons why you shouldn’t.
College freshmen experience a new freedom that is attracted, or better tempted by many things: parties, alcohol and drugs, sex, abandoning values so as to fit in with peers, to name a few. Their faith connection can begin to erode unless they become involved with the Catholic community on campus or a nearby parish.
On the other hand, a recent study of the religious and spiritual lives of young adults (18-23 year olds) concluded that “going to college does not increase the ‘risk’ of religious decline or apostasy as it did in the not too distant past. Some evidence now even supports that it may actually decrease that risk, compared to not attending college.” (Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition, Oxford University Press, NY, 2009)
The key factor? Faith formation in the teen years, buoyed by their parents’ faith commitment, and their participation in the campus ministry community.
In the course of my nearly 40 years as a priest and bishop, the Church has called me to a variety of ministries. Each had its unique challenges and satisfactions but none more so than the time I spent in campus ministry.
For several years in the early nineties, it was my privilege to serve as chaplain at the Harvard – Radcliffe Catholic Student Center at Harvard University. Our Center was connected with the vibrant Parish of St. Paul in Harvard Square.
Our team included two other priests, a Sister of Mercy, and two laywomen. We worked collaboratively among ourselves and also with students who emerged as leaders within our Catholic community.
My major work was the pastoral care of undergrads. This was a broad spectrum ministry rarely confined by a 9 to 5 schedule. Each week, I would meet with a student liturgy committee to reflect on the coming Sunday’s Scripture readings, ready to be enlightened by students’ insights on the relationship of the lectionary readings to their personal, spiritual, and moral questions, or on issues that were currently “hot” on campus. Their input made a significant impact on my homilies and gave me opportunities for catechesis.
Much time was spent in one-on-one spiritual direction and pastoral counseling, including marriage preparation for older students. Often I became a theological resource for students struggling with questions of faith and doubt, or simply as an advisor on students’ research papers on religious and ethical topics.
Other activities included an array of Christian service opportunities around Catholic social teaching, Eucharistic adoration in a Taizé model, RCIA sessions, and leadership training.
There was the all-important ministry of presence, just hanging out with students in their dining halls, walking across the Harvard Yard, or cooking spaghetti dinners. And then there were the debates, spirited but always respectful, on any number of issues, usually generated during casual conversation around the fireplace.
Always, though, these bright, articulate and sincere young men and women – and occasionally their professors – challenged me and my colleagues to stay on our toes regarding both Church teaching and the issues and concerns, both personal and social, which carried such weight on campus.
It was – it is – wonderful, if demanding, work. I loved it. I saw miracles of conversion, of growth in faith, of generous service to people in need. And I was part of a community of Catholics, some convinced, some searching, all growing, who knew that the Sunday Eucharist was the very heartbeat of all that we were about as individuals and as a community. Mass was always vibrant and joyful.
I am grateful to all who constitute the Catholic communities on Maine’s college and university campuses. Particular gratitude goes to Father Bill Labbe, diocesan director of campus ministry as well as chaplain at the University of Maine Orono and pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord in Old Town. My thanks to the other campus ministers, the priests who reach out to students, and the students and faculty who give Catholic witness in an often very secular environment.
Parents: I share your hopes and concerns. My ongoing commitment to lifelong faith formation includes campus ministry that will nurture your young adult’s faith and relationship to the Lord and His Church.