Chaplains take college campus ministry to the high schools

COLUMBIA—Those who work in campus ministry have to deal with the sad fact that many young Catholics stop practicing their faith once they start college. 

Father David Nerbun has seen this play out as chaplain at Coastal Carolina University, where about 30 percent of the 11,000 students are Catholic but Mass and other activities only draws a handful of them. 

In an effort to reverse this trend, he hit the road in early December for a “campus ministry tour” to show high school seniors how to keep faith alive once they graduate. 

He traveled the state with Father Marcin Zahuta, pastor of St. Thomas More Church and chaplain at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, plus four members of the FOCUS team. FOCUS is a national outreach program whose young adult missionaries travel to college campuses to share the Gospel message. 

The team visited John Paul II in Ridgeland, Bishop England in Charleston, Cardinal Newman in Columbia, and St. Joseph’s Catholic in Greenville. 

At each school, the priests celebrated Mass, ate lunch and had discussion time with the senior class. They also met with school guidance counselors and campus ministers to encourage them to talk with seniors about campus ministry. 

Father Nerbun said he became conscious of the crisis of faith among college students after reading “Forming Intentional Disciples,” by Sherry Waddell. The work indicates about 50 percent of youth stop practicing their faith at age 18, and by age 23 its about 80 percent. Other studies show about 80 percent of college students do not regularly attend Mass.

“I struggled to grasp and understand those numbers especially with my experience at Coastal, and I realized for the past couple years we hadn’t even been reaching one percent of the Catholics on campus,” he said. “I wondered how do we engage and put a dent in this number?”

Father Nerbun did some research and discovered that Coastal’s campus ministry had never contacted several students from schools in the diocese. This made him wonder how many others were overlooked once they started college. 

At each stop on the high school tour, he and Father Zahuta reminded the seniors that it was important to learn about campus ministry opportunities and make contact as soon as possible at the school they attend.

The FOCUS missionaries gave personal testimonies about how challenging it is to be a faithful Catholic on a college campus. They described how the party scene initially led them away, and that they returned to their faith after meeting people who showed them a way of living according to the Gospel.

“Choose friends in college that can help you grow in your faith because it’s hard to do it alone,” said Ashley Summerford, 22, who graduated from the University of Alabama. 

Father Nerbun said the team was happy with the results of the high school visits so far. 

“Just to give them the personal face of campus ministry is a huge first step,” Father Nerbun said. “It’s so important for them to learn that there are ways to live your faith after high school.”

Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Members of the FOCUS mission team talk to seniors at Cardinal Newman School about how to keep their faith strong when they become college students. From left: Ashley Summerford and Claire O’Gorman.