Offering college students a spiritual home away from home

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Catholic campus ministry, the kind provided at Newman Centers and other Catholic centers around the United States, is a bridge between the church and secular institutions of higher learning, said Father Pat Marshall, who has directed the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 20 years.

Three major secular universities within the Archdiocese of Chicago have dedicated Catholic ministry centers, while other colleges and universities are served by nearby parishes or other campus ministers.

Such centers offer students, faculty and staff at secular universities a convenient place to receive the sacraments, but they are more than that. They offer students a home away from home, a place where their faith is not an object of curiosity or hostility, but a gift to be nurtured.

John Paul II Newman Center

UIC is the Chicago area's largest institution university, with 27,000 students, 16,000 of them Catholic, said Marshall. So it only makes sense that the church find a way to serve those students — and, secondarily, the faculty that teach them.

"Each Newman Center has to address the particular needs of the population they are dealing with," Marshall said. "Many of the students here come from blue-collar families, and there is a lot of religious illiteracy, which you probably find among any young adults."

At UIC, Marshall has encountered very little hostility towards religion, but lots of apathy.

"Somebody may have been born Catholic, baptized and maybe made their First Holy Communion, but somewhere when they were a teenager they stopped going to church," Marshall said. "It really doesn't mean anything to them."

To engage students, members of the campus ministry team strike up conversations in campus dining areas and at the student union, inviting students to share their attitudes about Christ, Marshall said, and inviting them to the Newman Center.

Calvert House

At Calvert House, the Catholic center at the University of Chicago, staff and Catholic students hold coffee hours at off-site coffee houses, but most Catholic students who participate find it on their own.

"We're the only building on University Avenue with a statue of St. Francis in front of it," said Msgr. Pat Lagges, Calvert House's director.

Several students said they found Calvert House when they visited the campus as prospective students, and it helped them decide on the University of Chicago.

"I grew up Catholic," said Lucas Williams, a first-year student at University of Chicago, at lunch at Calvert House following daily Mass. "I knew my faith would be challenged. But here, they take faith a bit more seriously."

Josh Casteel, a master's student in the university's divinity school, said the University of Chicago is actually more welcoming to people of faith than other universities where he has studied.

"There's much more rootedness in the history of thought and philosophy here," Casteel said, and that makes people open to discussing religious thought, although religious practice may be less common.

Lagges said the Catholic Student Association, which organizes most of the activities, receives university support for things that are not directly faith-based, and that there are many religious options open to students of various faiths.

Casteel said he started trying to attend daily Mass at Calvert House after drowning in academics his first quarter on campus. In that, he is joined by several other students, who also find themselves attending weekly undergraduate dinners or every-twoweeks graduate student dinners, dropping in to study in the lounge or joining in service projects.

"It's a small enough community where you might not know everyone's name, but you know all the faces," said Lisa Pawlowicz, a third-year physics student who coordinates the undergraduate dinners.

Felipe Fernandez del Castillo, a senior in classics, said the center helps keep students connected to the church at a time when they are breaking free of their former roles within their families.

"A place like Calvert House makes it easy," he said, and new students can find a community there. "That draws you in to the church."

Sheil Catholic Center

Still, most of the students who come to Catholic centers come more for Mass than to find a community.

"That is 90 percent of the student involvement," said Father John Kartje, director of Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University. "The ones who come are here maybe two or three Sundays a month on average. But there's always that cadre of 20 to 30 who almost live here."

That's the group that must reach out to other students to get them more involved, Kartje said. "Especially at a secular university, it works best when it comes from the students," he said. "It's not a Catholic culture at Northwestern University."

They — and the staff at Sheil — make an effort to "treat every Sunday like its orientation week," he said.

"On any given Sunday, there are going to be one to five students here who have never been here before," he said. "So we have to be welcoming every Sunday."

Sheil has tried to improve its outreach by marketing itself better, updating its website and following the Northwestern tradition of taping hundreds of brightly colored flyers to the sidewalks to draw attention to upcoming events.

Service trips — generally to Nicaragua over winter break and New Orleans over spring break — are popular, even with non- Catholic students. The students want the prayer and reflection time that is built into those trips, Kartje said.

Service opportunities — whether trips or local projects — are on the menu at the John Paul II Newman Center and Calvert House as well, as are opportunities for formation and intellectual enrichment in the Catholic tradition.

UIC is home to the largest medical school in the United States, he said, along nursing and dental schools, and the West Campus is in the heart of the Illinois Medical District.

To serve its audience, the John Paul II Newman Center offers the Integritas Institute for Ethics, which sponsors lectures and other events to present the ethical and moral teachings of the church, especially in the areas of health care and business.

It also endowed a chair in Catholic studies at the university so that students can take for-credit courses about Catholicism; it provides a religious vocation discernment program for men and women; and it is starting a "School of Catholic Thought" that will be open to the public as well as the university community.

At the University of Chicago, Calvert House can take advantage of the Lumen Christi Institute, which was founded by Catholic scholars at the university to bring together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual and cultural traditions.

All of that goes into developing the Catholic leaders of the future, which is what the Catholic centers hope their students will become.

At UIC, for example, the Newman Center has a program that teaches students how to take on lay leadership roles within a parish, serving as readers or extraordinary ministers of Communion.

All of the centers hope to make students consider how their faith changes the way they live.

"It's to try to say, what does it mean to view the world and what you do from a Catholic point of view?" Kartje said. "What does it mean to be a Catholic doctor or a Catholic lawyer? How do you do open-heart surgery as a Catholic doctor?"