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Opening doors to Christ on a college campus

Erin McConnell, an elementary education major at the University of Maine in Orono, carries a full course load, while also working 30 hours a week. But despite her busy days, Erin says there is something else she also always makes time for in her schedule – her Catholic faith.

“It’s essential. I literally cannot imagine my life without it,” she says.

While Erin says she was active in her high school youth group back home in Ellington, Conn., she says her faith has really come alive at the University of Maine in Orono. She credits the supportive Catholic community she found at the Newman Center on campus, which she originally sought out just as a place to attend Sunday Mass.

“I went to the Newman Center not expecting to find the community and the friendship and all of those things that would come from it,” she says. “It wasn’t until I met people there who encouraged me to continue growing in my faith, really diving deeper into it, not just going to Mass every Sunday but going to Bible studies, joining in discipleship, things like that to actually grow, that I really realized how important my faith is to my life.”

Erin, president of Black Bear Catholic, the student organization connected with the university and the center, isn’t the only student who has found a nurturing environment there.  Father Kyle Doustou, campus chaplain as well as pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord in Old Town, says there are between 50 and 60 students actively engaged in campus ministry, with 150 others involved in some way.

“For some, campus ministry is just about getting them in the door and giving them a lifeline to hang onto amid all the temptations of the world, so there is that aspect, but we also have got a core group of students who are ready for more,” he says. “They’ve already given their lives over to Christ. Now, we need to train them and prepare them for what the rest of their lives are going to look like.”

They include students like Joe Beale, a Topsham native, and Nick Hershbine, originally from the town of Exeter. Like Erin, they say the supportive, faith-filled community they found at the Newman Center changed their lives.

“It’s just a community where there is no judgment. They meet you where you’re at, but they push you to be better in your faith. It’s just a longing that you have for Jesus in your heart, and it fills you, not fully because the only way it can be fulfilled is with Jesus in the Eucharist, but having those brother and sisterships, those brothers and sisters in Christ, it is truly remarkable. It is invaluable,” says Joe. “I came here to UMaine never expecting to be involved in this place or just being minimally involved: fulfill my Sunday requirement and I thought that would be good enough. But we learned here that’s not good enough.”

“The whole focus is to grow closer to Christ and to bring Christ to others,” Nick says. “It just made it real to me in a new way.”

Nick, who was active in youth ministry in high school including serving on the Catholic Youth Leadership Team for the diocese, says he became concerned that his faith was starting to slip away when he began attending a community college in Bangor.

“I was having a hard time, just with the secular environment,” he says.

Then, it was recommended to him that he check out the Newman Center in nearby Orono. It turned out to be just what he needed.

“As soon as I got involved, things started looking up more, and I had a lot more of a grasp on my faith,” Nick says. “It was just how open and honest everyone is and how authentic they are in trying to strive to live a holy life.”

It made such a difference to him that it was one of the reasons he altered his college plans.

“I just decided that I needed to be closer to that community, so I transferred to UMaine,” he says. “There were other factors. I needed to be more academically challenged, and I needed to find more of a sense of what my major was, but a big part of it was to be more involved in the Newman Center community.”

The Newman Center offers many opportunities for students to become involved and strengthen their relationship with Christ. Along with Father Doustou, the students are served by Audrey Aylmer, the campus minister, and four FOCUS missionaries. FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, is a national evangelization program that places young adult missionaries on college campuses.

“They’re able to relate to students in a way that I can’t and shouldn’t relate to them,” says Father Doustou. “I’m the one who is offering them counsel. I’m also there to have fun with them and to build them up, but they can be friends with the FOCUS missionaries and that’s huge. The whole model of this is win, build, send. So, you bring people through the doors, you build them up, and then you send them out into the world to do the mission of the Church.”

“We have wonderful formation from our organization as a whole. It gives exceptional training on how to reach out to students and be able to meet them where they’re at and to be able to share Christ with them,” says Matt Leffel, who has been a FOCUS missionary at UMaine for four years.

Matt says a key factor is the missionaries’ availability. They fundraise ahead of time to help support themselves so their focus while on campus is solely on connecting with students.

“The campus here is our mission,” says Matt. “It’s very rare that someone can’t find us or get a hold of us to be able just to talk or ask a question.”

The FOCUS missionaries all lead Bible study groups, and they also work with student leaders to teach them how to guide groups of their own. Matt says there are currently 11 student-led Bible study groups, in addition to the ones led by the missionaries.

“That’s so many more students that the Newman Center is able to impact,” he says.

“The way that FOCUS and the missionaries encourage students and teach them how to then lead a Bible study is so empowering. It’s really a model for what every Catholic church should be doing,” says Audrey. “When we crack open the word of God and really see, OK, God is actually speaking to me, I feel it and I sense it because in this passage, there is something for me, I think students really engage well with that, even students who are not Catholic. We’ve had lots of students who are Christian, and they still sign up for Bible study, and they gain so much from it.”

“I started going to Bible study in my freshman year, and that really helped me to enjoy reading the Bible. It helped me to start to develop a prayer life,” says Erin. “It’s being able to learn more about the Bible, learn more about how to pray, learn more about the Catholic faith in general, starting to understand the meaning of some of the things we do during Mass, so I can connect more with the Mass now, rather than just going through the motions.”

Erin, Nick, and Joe are among the students who not only attend but also lead Bible studies.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better Bible study group. They ask amazing questions, and they make me think, too, about many, many things, and make me think about my faith and my interpretation of some of the Scriptures,” Joe says. “It’s stressful sometimes because I don’t know if I’m qualified or worthy to lead Bible study, but it’s more just opening that conversation and knowing for at least one hour a week that we’re going to dive into God’s word with brothers and discuss what God is saying to them in Scripture.”

Nick started a Bible study group at the fraternity where he lives. He says he was encouraged to do so by one of the FOCUS missionaries and by some of the students who knew of his involvement with the Newman Center.

“I haven’t been super consistent, but we’re definitely getting some good conversations out of it, and a few of the guys have actually started coming to Mass,” he says.

Along with Bible studies, the missionaries lift up student leaders through what the FOCUS program calls discipleship. The missionaries help students to recognize their missionary call and give them the tools they need to feel comfortable going out and sharing their faith with others.

“They definitely helped me to be more public with my faith,” says Nick. “I realized how important it is to evangelize. Through discipleship, I had a lot more accountability to actually go out and spread the Gospel, which is definitely something I probably would have never done on my own.”

Two Sunday Masses are celebrated at Our Lady of Wisdom Church, which is part of the Newman Center, one in the morning and one in the evening, as well as a Mass on Tuesday night. There are also retreats and conferences, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I will start adoration on Tuesdays at 6:30 in the evening with the understanding that I’m going to do Benediction around 8 o’clock and then Mass right after that. Sometimes, they keep me in the confessional until 8:30 p.m. It’s like two hours, and then, I hear another 45 minutes of confessions on Sundays before Mass. It’s incredible. They are so hungry and thirsty,” says Father Doustou.

The Newman Center also offers many activities such as Sunday and Wednesday evening suppers, men’s and women’s groups, and special events such as an Easter Sunday brunch and Easter egg hunt. Audrey says it’s an opportunity to invite students into a holistic community that is prepared to help them become more engaged in their faith when and if they are ready to do so. She says the key is to always make sure they know they are welcome.

“I love creating a welcoming atmosphere at the Newman Center where people can walk in and be known by name. That is just so important to me,” she says. “The FOCUS missionaries I get to work with, they are incredible at what they do in creating that with me.”

Audrey shares the story of a student who described himself as an atheist but would regularly attend Wednesday evening suppers.

“He was like, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I love coming here because people will talk to me, and we have good conversations, and I’m learning so much.’ He also made some friends, and he had a community, and that was such a beautiful thing to see,” she says.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some outreach, such as setting up a table with information or striking up a conversation over coffee, those involved in campus ministry say it’s also led to new opportunities. Father Doustou points out for instance that when the college started reopening, the Newman Center did as well, but many other activities were still shutdown.

“A lot of the same things that vie for their attention, they could not do anymore. These things were still not happening. Sports were still not happening. So, this helped us to really become even more intentional about what we wanted campus ministry to be. It brought the students closer together,” he says.

“The large majority are spending so much time on their screens and in their rooms that the Newman Center is suddenly booming because it’s a place to be besides their dorm,” says Audrey. “It’s really become a hub where people can gather.”

The large indoor space allows for social distancing, and in warmer weather, some meals have been held outside to accommodate bigger gatherings, something else with a hidden benefit according to Audrey.

“There is some visibility being right on College Avenue. People are driving by and seeing things happening more and more, so that is kind of an exciting thing,” she says.

There are a lot of exciting things happening at the Newman Center. Audrey remembers when it was a struggle to fill the Black Bear Catholic executive board.  Now, there is not only the board, but additional team leaders in charge of specific ministries.

“It has grown exponentially,” says Audrey. “This year, I think, is the first year where all of those extra positions we imagined a few years ago are actually filled.”

Student involvement goes beyond the Newman Center. Students are also engaged in the life of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord, which, in addition to Our Lady of Wisdom, has churches in Bradley and Old Town and on Indian Island.

“I’ve got four of my college students who are serving all of the daily Masses in the parish during the week. They’re on a rotating basis, and they’re serving some of the Sunday Masses outside the Newman Center, too. I’ve got students who are serving on the Pastoral Council and on the Worship and Spiritualty Commission. I’ve got students involved in the thrift store. They’re all over the place,” says Father Doustou. “It’s perked up the parish because they see their future.”

“I think that is a really important thing to have – to bring the parish and the Newman Center into a better relationship,” says Nick who serves on the Worship and Spirituality Commission at the parish.

“I really have been embraced by the parish. I’ve gotten to know the parish quite well,” says Joe, a Pastoral Council member at the parish. “It’s great having an older generation around as well with us and the whole parish family to kind of cradle us and walk with us on the journey of college.”

Father Doustou says it’s important to connect the students to the rest of the Church, because they won’t always be in the Newman Center bubble.

“We’re ministering to them because we’re preparing to send them out to parishes for their vocations. We’re preparing them for the rest of their lives as Catholics,” he says. “We want them interacting with the rest of the Church. I look at our graduating seniors as people that we’re going to be sending to Kennebunk, Presque Isle, Madison, Camden. They’re going to go back to their parishes, and they’re going to be on fire.”

The students say campus ministry has made a lasting impression. Erin says she doesn’t believe she would have a faith life right now without the gifts she received through campus ministry.

“I don’t think I had enough of a connection with Jesus before coming to the Newman Center to have wanted to continue it. Maybe I would have been going to Mass not frequently on Sundays, with no consistency, going on Sundays when I had time, but I certainly would not be doing anything even close to what I am doing now,” she says.

“It’s just refocused and recentered my life on praying and looking at everything that occurs in my day-to-day life as a blessing, no matter what it is,” says Joe. “I wish that every student at the University of Maine could experience what we experience here at the Newman Center.”

“I don’t think I would be where I am without the support of campus ministry,” agrees Nick, who will participate in a mission trip to Peru and a FOCUS internship program this summer. “I’ve just been able to grow a lot in my faith.”

“It’s a doorway to God,” adds Joe. “Love is what it really comes down to. It’s true love.”