Campus ministers creating sense of community for students during pandemic

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Screenshot of an online meeting through Calvert House, the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Chicago. Chaplain Father Andrew Liaugminas is on the bottom left.

For the students in Mary Deeley’s Catholic scholars seminar group at Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, the first meeting of spring quarter is in a familiar format: a Zoom call, with faces appearing from around the country, or, in some cases, around the world.

Before diving into a discussion on the first part of “Verbum Dei,” a few of the students shared what it had been like.

“It does of course feel really different being home, but I still have been doing the things I was doing on campus,” said Monica Juarez, a senior speaking from her home in Georgia. “Before, I was doing a weekly faith-sharing group with a group of girls on Wednesday mornings, and we’re still doing that. That’s been a real blessing to still have when things are so up in the air about what’s going to happen next. That’s been really good.”

Junior Obumneme Osele, also at home in Georgia, said that it’s not the same as being able to drop into the Sheil Catholic Center on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, but there can be value found in coping with the lack of in-person contact.

“It is less than ideal, not being on campus,” Osele said. “Sheil has done a really great job of trying to keep us engaged. It’s a little bit more impersonal, of course. That’s where the effort has to come in for Christians.”

Deeley, pastoral associate at Sheil and director of the center’s Christ the Teacher Institute, is like campus ministers all over the country, finding ways to connect to students online and over social media while their campuses are closed.

Northwestern still has a few students on campus who couldn’t go home for various reasons, Deeley said, and the Northwestern food pantry housed at Sheil is serving students who have lost jobs or otherwise find themselves in need.

Deeley and Father Kevin Feeney, Sheil’s director, are reaching out by phone and online and hosting opportunities for them to connect as much as they can.

Sheil’s downtown Chicago arm organized an online panel discussion on the ethical questions raised by the pandemic for Northwestern’s law and medical students, Feeney said, and he makes a point of telling students and staff that he is praying for them every day.

“I think what they are still missing, despite everything we’ve been doing, is that sense of community,” Feeney said.

At the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Father Connor Danstrom has been recording the audio from his daily Masses and posting them as podcasts. The center has been having somebody new host the praying of the rosary on Instagram Live at noon each day — Instagram seemed to be the platform of choice for the students, according to Becca Siar, the director of campus ministry — and it livestreamed the liturgies from the Triduum.

Meanwhile, the four Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries who were running Catholic Bible studies moved them to Zoom.

“They didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

All of the ministers said the stay-at-home order and transition to remote education has been especially hard on seniors, who will not get traditional graduation ceremonies this year and face uncertain circumstances as they try to launch the next phase of their lives. The John Paul II Newman Center did its annual senior retreat online, Siar said.

Amanda Thompson, the director of Catholic campus ministry at DePaul University, said it hosted a “wine and whine” online gathering for seniors. Other social gatherings have including online gaming sessions and discussions.

“Our ministry has really been twofold,” Thompson said, “one being pastoral care, being available for one-on-ones as well as well as small-group gatherings, and the other being moving our regular programming to a remote basis.”

The 8 p.m. liturgy that was coordinated by the DePaul campus ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Parish has transitioned to a regularly scheduled discussion, she said, and the office is working with its 25 paid student leaders. At a recent formation session, they talked about the nature of grief, she said, because almost all students are experiencing some form of grief, even if they don’t know anyone who is ill.

“They know there’s such greater suffering with the people who are sick and dying from this virus and they just want to pass off their own feelings as, ‘It’s not as bad as that.’ Just to laugh and to be together virtually have been so important for our community.”

Thompson said she and her colleagues have been especially concerned at the way the pandemic is magnifying disparities, as some students are coping with job losses of their own or in their families.

That has also been at the forefront of the mind of Claire Noonan, vice president of mission and ministry at Dominican University. Her department has also continued to employ its student peer ministers .

“One thing we’re trying to attend to is the real economic needs of some of our students,” Noonan said. “Parents are being furloughed or laid off, while some of our students are employed in essential industries and are being asked to carry a heavier workload now.”

To help everyone connect, the campus ministers are trying to balance more serious material, like Good Friday reflections on the Stations of the Cross, with fun things like a video compilation of the campus ministers opening their refrigerators and pulling out things that give them comfort. Items included Bibles and rosaries; someone pulled out their cat, and another person pulled out their sister.

Several campus ministers said they livestreamed the Triduum liturgies, and some, like Father Andrew Liaugminas, director of Calvert House at the University of Chicago, are streaming Sunday liturgies as well. The reach of the online services has surprised them.

“Even if we only had one person per screen, we had more people watching the Easter Vigil than we could have fit in our chapel,” Liaugminas said. “Maybe we’re getting people who couldn’t have come, or couldn’t have committed to the whole service.”

Liaugminas said, like most of the other campus ministers, that he is just as busy as before. It’s just that now most of his meetings are over Zoom, which the University of Chicago adopted as a common platform.

“We’re doing everything we did before,” he said, including RCIA, religious education for the children of faculty, staff and graduate students and even a weekly dinner for undergraduate members. “They send out the recipe they would have made so everyone can make it at home and then they gather online to talk.”

Small faith-sharing groups that formed during winter quarter started meeting on their own even before Liaugminas suggested that they do so, and there has been some interest in having his daily Mass streamed.

“Even when it’s not streamed, I’ve had people ask when I’m celebrating privately so they can pray,” Liaugminas said.

One thing the pandemic has brought home, he said, is the theological reality that the Eucharist is the center of the church, and that it brings the whole church together, even those who are not physically present.

“The center holds us, even when one might be separated from it,” Liaugminas said. “The sacrament is still celebrated, and that’s important.”

Rebekah Spearman, who has been studying for her doctorate in classics at the University of Chicago for the past five years, said she hopes the church comes out of the crisis with an increased sense of awe for the Eucharist, which is one of the things she misses the most.

“Of course, you can make an act of spiritual communion, but it’s just not the same,” she said.

The student she is sponsoring for RCIA, who was hoping to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, is in a holding pattern.

“It’s like this person he’s been waiting for, longing for, has been delayed,” Spearman said. “It’s like we’re stuck in this liminal space, and it’s perpetually Holy Saturday.”

All of the campus ministers said they are looking forward to a time when they can be physically present with students and colleagues once again — Liaugminas has about 10 people who were expecting to be received into the church at the Easter Vigil — but they all will carry lessons they have learned during this time with them.

That includes the power of online outreach.

“At least for us, it’s been eye-opening,” Siar said. “We’ve always had this desire to think beyond the normal way of doing things. It’s been really good for us as church to think creatively and beyond the box. One of the things we often fall into as ministers is assuming people are going to walk through our doors and fill our pews. This is forcing us to reach out to them, with at least the initial encounter with Christ over the internet.”

Still, she said, she can’t wait for suspension of public Masses to be over.

Neither can Deeley.

“I would hope people will come out of this with a greater sense of community,” she said.


  • campus ministry
  • coronavirus

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