Campus ministries help to build the future of the church

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”
John Quincy Adams

Through college and into the adult years, young Catholics most often find themselves at Mass only on occasion. When they get married and start a family, they may join a parish. And they may eventually get involved in parish life.

Campus ministry programs strive to keep Catholics active in their faith during the formative college years and beyond.

In 1985, the U.S. bishops brought to light the importance of campus ministry in their pastoral “Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future.” They discussed how far campus ministry has come since its origins in 1883, how far it has to go and what it will take to get there.

They offered six aspects for campus ministry: forming the faith community, appropriating the faith, forming the Christian conscience, educating for justice, facilitating personal development, and developing leaders for the future.

Nearly 20 years after the bishops’ pastoral, campus ministry has changed only minimally in its efforts to reach its full potential.

Dee Bernhardt, chair of the executive board of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, says the ministry has “taken steps nationally, but it’s been a very slow road.” She praises the bishops’ pastoral.

“Usually the pastorals are more theoretical, but this had more practical applications,” she said. “A really good campus ministry will be touching on all six aspects.”

 Common reasons for the slow development of this important corner of the Catholic Church are a small pool of campus ministers, difficulties in identifying Catholic students and reaching them, funding, and struggles with academia.

Overcoming the challenges

Alumni support is a major resource for campus ministry — not only with funding, but also with volunteer support.

“Alumni are a great untapped resource in campus ministry,” said Father Jeffrey Kendall, director of Catholic Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Charleston.

The priest is also the campus minister at The Citadel, where an alumni advisory board has been started.

“They act as a finance council, help make policy decisions, help make campus ministry viable by their resources and financial support,” the priest said.

Father Kendall is the 14th campus minister in 18 years at the military college. Now in his fifth year, he feels the campus minister is the backbone of an organization whose membership changes yearly.

In this era of priest shortages, volunteers such as alumni are needed to help establish campus ministry programs as a permanent fixture.

Reaching out to the Catholic population on campus is a daunting task for campus ministry programs. Students are not required to provide information about their religion, but whether they do or do not, attracting them to the program is another obstacle.

“Campus ministry needs to train young people to be ministers to one another on the campuses,” said Sister Rita Schroeder, campus minister at the College of Charleston.

The School Sister of Notre Dame said students, not campus ministers, are in the best position to attract more students to the ministry.

Providing students with the tools to construct a truthful atmosphere about the Catholic Church helps them to pass along the Good News.

“There’s a great, great hunger for meaning, for having a meaningful spirituality, and certainly a need to know more,” said Gaurav Shroff, director of Christian Formation at the St. Thomas More Center at the University of South Carolina. He’s worked with campus minister Father Tim Lijewksi for seven years. “Real questions [students] deal with can be brought here, and we’ve got to be able to walk with them, not provide formula answers.”

Campus ministries help students looking for answers to be able to stand their ground in faith and moral discussions in the classroom and with their peers.

“Sometimes I feel they don’t have the knowledge to counter the different views that they hear or the questions that they get,” said Sister Schroeder.

When students can’t answer the questions — such as “Why do you worship Mary?” or “Whose right is it to choose for me?” — they may become disoriented in their beliefs and can lose their way.

“I tell them because you question your faith or your beliefs, does not mean you give it up. It’s a call to go deeper,” said the sister. “They don’t see it as an opportunity, a graced moment for growth.”

Campus ministries provide knowledgeable resources for students so that they can answer the tough questions about their Catholic beliefs.

At the College of Charleston, Sister Schroeder and the other campus ministers who make up the Religious Life Council hope to make students’ access to spiritual needs easier by gaining a campus locale for their programs.

Sister Schroeder said that the school provides a gym for the students’ physical well-being, and a psychological center for their mental well-being, so why not a center for spiritual growth?

Historically, college administrators have fought the need for religious formation on campus.

In their 1985 pastoral the bishops said, “The time has come to move beyond these misunderstandings and to forge a new relationship between the Church and higher education that respects the unique character of each. We remain convinced that ‘cooperation between these two great institutions, Church and university, is indispensable to the health of society.’ ”

The left-of-center ideas about religion on many secular college campuses has made this transition a difficult one at times, but change is happening.

In South Carolina, there are about 12 active campus ministries, from programs that have regular meetings, to Mass, to being a full-fledged parish, and the programs are gaining strength.

“We have a lot of campus ministers around the state who work very hard to make campus ministry successful,” said Father Kendall.

In the Diocese of Charleston, the first training session for college student leadership will be for 30 students, thanks to grants from the Catholic Extension Society and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

This training will help students build a strong campus ministry, but also will prepare them for a life in the church.

“We try to prepare them for leadership in the church, not just to be passive Mass-goers,” said Shroff.

Chris Collins, a senior and president of the Catholic Student Association at the College of Charleston, said he’s heard from friends that it’s hard to find an active young adult group.

“It’ll probably be a difficult transition,” said Collins. “I don’t know what to expect, but I definitely see myself being involved with the church and helping others live out their faith. Maybe God will provide a parish that needs someone to help run or be a part of adult ministry.”

Therein lies the purpose of leadership training and, in part, campus ministry.

“Our real hope is that they become the future leaders in our parishes,” said Sister Schroeder. “We want them to be able to say ‘I did that in college, I can do that.’ ”

Not only are campus ministries providing for the future of the church, but they are also providing a refuge for students. They help students stay close to their Christian values.

“It has been indispensable to me in living out my faith,” said Collins. “It provided me with a group of people that I could identity with, a life of faith in a secular environment.”

Nick Lyden is a senior at The Citadel and head of the choir for Christ the Divine Teacher, the campus parish.

“It’s a giant community that keeps you in check,” he said. “It’s a large family, and we get to know each other; if one person is struggling we’re all there to help.”

Helping to secure the future of young Catholics is no small task. Campus ministers everywhere are committed to their goal of illuminating the faith among Catholic students, but in many cases resources run dry.

“The money from the diocese does not meet our expenses, so we rely on donations from parents,” said Sister Schroeder.

When the ministry falls short, students create fund-raising activities on campus. The College of Charleston students raised money for a trip to Washington for the national pro-life march and rally in January. Students and their parents made up the difference in expenses for the trip.

The Catholic Campus Ministry Association Web site states, “The goal of development is to build long-term relationships with these stakeholders (parents, alumni, faculty, staff and community members) and invite them to become directly involved in sustaining and expanding the mission.”

The site offers several worthwhile suggestions on raising funds. The association also offers an annual Development Institute.

“With money comes staff, people that can actually make things happen,” Father Kendall said.

Bernhardt says to have faith.

“Have dreams for the ministry and be very vocal about them,” she said. “Talk to people constantly and explore avenues on campus.”

She suggested, for instance, that student government may fund a leadership development conference rather than a religious conference.

Despite money, personnel and membership issues, young Catholics and the church are benefiting from the labors of campus ministers everywhere.

It’s been almost 20 years since the bishops wrote their pastoral challenging campus ministry and the academic world to come together. It may be slow going, but worthwhile efforts always seem to find their time and place.

Have faith and persevere!