Presence. "For over a century," the National Council of Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter "Empowered by the Spirit" opens, "the Catholic campus ministry in our country, empowered by the Spirit, has been forming communities of faith which witness to the presence of the risen Christ."
The priest chaplains, lay ministers, faculty advisors and student members convince by their presence and their actions, explains John Campbell, "that God is in the equation, that God is an option and that we are who we are because of our faith in God."
Mr. Campbell serves as lay chaplain at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. He works as part of a network of college ministries coordinated by Father Michael Dolan as its director. In the Archdiocese of Hartford, 13 colleges have officially recognized campus ministries. Their missions are similar, but the nature of each campus makes each ministry unique.
Private or public college, resident or commuter campus, two-year or four-year institution – each of these factors shapes the work of the minister. Schedules change, students transfer or drop out, but most eventually graduate. These are all factors, emphasize the various ministers, that offer both challenges and opportunities.
Father Dolan considers the students’ lack of a developed interior life as the greatest challenge: they "may be smart but they lack skills for reflection because there is always something new to stimulate them or distract them from the deeper questions."
How do these ministries try to engage students in such questions? What works? "Empowered by the Spirit" describes six aspects of campus programs: Forming of the Faith Community, Appropriating the Faith, Forming the Christian Conscience, Educating for Justice, Facilitating Personal Development and Developing Leaders for the Future.
Sandi Smith, lay minister at the University of Hartford, says she found great success by offering small faith groups under a program called "Come as You Are." Retreats are organized by other campus ministers. There are also Bible studies, Scripture teas, guest speakers, film screenings and community service programs.
Perhaps most important are simple opportunities to talk. Mr. Campbell explains, "I need to be where the students are, show them that I am there for them, that they can trust me. One of the most effective things I do is set up a table in the student center lobby at CCSU twice a week from 11-1."
Ms. Smith says she has an "open door policy."
Dan Mathews, lay minister at Naugatuck Valley Community College and Post University, often finds himself engaged in a night-time conversation just when he thought his day was over.
Regardless of the activity, food doesn’t hurt, they say. Ms. Smith brought a light dinner for those who attended the first Mass celebrated when she began as lay minister at the University of Hartford, and three years later finds herself preparing and transporting dinner for up to 30 students each week.
The Sunday Masses are important on each campus, and often they attract a set of students different from those who attend a weekday Mass or a planned activity. Regardless of the activity, Mr. Mathews explains, every event must be Eucharist-centered.
One of Mr. Mathews’s students once described eucharistic adoration as "chemotherapy for the soul." And these chaplains are also ministering to souls. Within the institution, students often face a moral relativism, and outside it, a pervasive secularism. And yet, they are seeking meaning, as are many college students. In 2010, the Higher Education Research Institute released a seven-year national longitudinal study of college students’ spirituality that confirmed that spirituality – a concern with life’s big questions, a search for a sense of calm, an "ethic of caring," "charitable involvement" and an "ecumenical worldview" – increases during college, even if involvement in traditional religious practices declines for some students.
This is a time in young people’s lives when they ask the big questions about the world and their role in it.
Mr. Campbell points out, "Some talk about marriage or not wanting to get married and have kids. Some talk about careers or travel or more school. I try to help kids look at these choices through a faith lens, what is God calling you to do or be?"
Some do consider the priesthood or religious life. Father Dolan, who also is the archdiocese’s director of vocations, can guide them in exploring such a calling.
But he adds, "So few go the route of the seminary or religious life, so I look at it as I am always helping people discern their baptismal call."
Beyond college, he says, he wants them to continue to grow in their faith and to be engaged in the Church, especially to be active parishioners.
The lay chaplains praise Father Dolan for establishing a program that allows them to share ideas and resources.
He also brings his witness to the campuses he visits. Mr. Mathews explains the power of the collar, which calls students and faculty "to ponder the transcendent."
Father Dolan explains it this way: it is easy to "hate an abstract idea" but harder to hate a person. Again, the essence of what he brings and what those involved in campus ministries bring is "presence." It is what "Empowered by the Spirit" calls "a searching, believing, loving, worshiping Catholic presence on campus."
Father Dolan believes that "Catholicism works very well on campus because it combines intellect and faith." Mr. Mathews points out the continuous need to "integrate spirituality into the academic life of the campus."
James M. Gentile is a professor of English at Manchester Community College, where he is the advisor to the Newman Society.