Catholic Scholars program helps Northwestern students grow in faith

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Mary Deeley, a pastoral associate at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University and founding director of the Christ the Teacher Institute, ministers during a Mass celebrating her retirement on May 22, 2022, at the center. (Photo provided)

For a dozen years, Catholic students at Northwestern University have had the opportunity to dig deeper into their faith intellectually and spiritually, with words and with actions, by participating in the Catholic Scholar program.

The two-year program, part of Sheil Catholic Center’s Christ the Teacher Institute, includes seminars and lectures, prayer, spiritual direction, retreats and immersion service trips.

While the coursework makes up some of what students will need to be certified as catechists or Catholic school teachers in the Archdiocese of Chicago, that’s not really the goal, said Mary Deeley, a pastoral associate at Sheil and founding director of the Christ the Teacher Institute.

“If ever a place needed formation, catechesis, a care for the whole person and their growth in Christ, it’s campus ministry,” said Deeley, who is retiring this summer after 25 on staff at Sheil. “So we have our liturgies and prayer opportunities, absolutely. Those are designed to entice people to come in. Our charge is to help students understand it’s not their parents’ faith, and help them make the transition. Everybody has to go deeper, no matter where they are, whether they went to 12 years of Catholic school — and paid attention — or their families didn’t really practice their faith. Everybody can bolster their relationship with Christ in ways they have not imagined.”

That’s exactly what happened for Ben Zitzewitz, who finished his first year as a Catholic Scholar earlier in June.

Zitzewitz, a computer science major who will be a junior next year, was a youth group leader at St. Paul the Apostle in Gurnee when he was in high school, and he planned to go to Mass every weekend and attend social and other events hosted by Sheil when he got to college.

But he didn’t actually get to campus in the fall of 2020 like he planned; students did not return to campus until winter quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. Classes and other gatherings were still almost all online, and his early interactions with Sheil were over Zoom.

“I was thankful I met some people who were very welcoming over the screen,” Zitzewitz said. “Through the people here, I realized that there were a lot of opportunities to grow. … I feel like I came here looking to stay the same in my faith, and I’ve been pushed to grow so much more, and I’m really grateful for that.”

When he applied for Catholic Scholars as a freshman, Zitzewitz said, he was expecting to have to participate in seminars and lectures in addition to his academic coursework, and he did enjoy those. But some of the other components had a big impact on him.

“The spiritual direction requirement was really great because it forced me to meet with a spiritual director and talk about my faith life day-to-day,” Zitzewitz said. “I was able to bring my faith into decisions that I was making for my life.”

That included changing his major from biomedical engineering with an eye to medical school to computer science.

“I realized that you can serve God’s people in really any profession,” he said.

Morgan Hodges, who graduated in June with a degree in human development in psychological services and cognitive sciences, also changed directions after her time in the Catholic Scholars program. She had planned a career in clinical psychology, on the academic or research side. Instead, she’s heading to Boston College next year to study theology and ministry and mental health counseling.

“One of the most impactful things for me was spiritual direction,” Hodges said. “That pushed me to think deeper and held me accountable for my prayer life, and I learned new ways to pray. I learned to question things a lot more and think more deeply about them. Mary taught us to think critically about issues of faith and develop our own thoughts using the teachings of the church.”

Students who participate in the program receive a $5,000 stipend over the two years, with most of the money going to expenses associated with the program, such paying for retreats or a spring break immersion trip to work for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.

While students can spend any extra money as they see fit, it’s usually not very much, and participating in Catholic Scholars is a big commitment, especially since most of the seminars and courses don’t come with academic credit from Northwestern.

The program is capped at 24 students, although it hasn’t had quite that many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deeley said one things students are asked to do is “put on the mind of Christ” and choose one trait of Christ they would like to practice, and then commit to two or three ways of doing that.

For example, one student said he wanted to become more hospitable, and decided to make a practice of talking with each of his fraternity brothers every week, and to invite a homeless person he frequently saw to lunch. He succeeded with his fraternity brothers, but never actually made the lunch invitation, something he then had to reflect on.

Students are also asked to take on some kind of public leadership role at Sheil or in the Catholic Student Association, serving as ambassadors for the Catholic community.

Deeley said there are several programs run by campus ministries around the United States that do some of the things Catholic Scholars does, but none that do all of the components.

“We want them to love God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, your strength,” she said.

A survey of alumni on the 10th anniversary of the program showed that it is effective, Deeley said.

“We got a response rate of 70 percent, and of those, 70 percent continue to practice their faith,” she said. “There were also comments like, ‘I don’t know that I would be if it wasn’t for this program.’”

Deeley, who has two adult daughters and a grandchild, with another on the way, said she plans to shift her ministry to more writing and spiritual direction, and is looking forward to not being bound to an academic calendar.

Benedictine Sister Belinda Monahan, currently on Sheil’s staff as an assistant campus minister and director of the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults, will be the new director.

Deeley said she has discerned from her prayer life that it is time for her to move to a new stage, but she will miss the people at Sheil all the same, because she loves them and loved the job.

“That’s really the key to ministry in general: Love the people. Love being the campus minister, the pastoral associate, whatever your role is, and love Jesus while you’re doing it,” she said. “Everything else can be learned. But if you don’t start with loving the people you’re serving, there is a problem. That’s true of ministry anywhere.”


  • campus ministry

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