Although Rob Walsh got to know the University of Maryland well when he was a student there from 1988 to 1992, there was one building on the College Park campus that he never graced.
"I never once stepped foot in the Catholic Student Center," Walsh said. "I was too busy doing fraternity parties and that kind of thing."
Walsh — now a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington — is in the building plenty these days: He’s chaplain of the Catholic Student Center.
And he pulls no punches when trying to reach his flock, many of whom live the life he once did.
Consider his homily at this year’s Ash Wednesday Mass, when he typically sees the most "Catholic Terps" (Maryland’s mascot is the terrapin).
"I was a little tougher on them" than the previous year, he said. "I said, ‘If this is the only day you’re coming, I want you to be here more. I’m begging you to be here more often. But if you know this is the only day you know you’re going to be here, if this is it for you, you’re mocking God, and God will not be mocked.’
"I want these kids to know … that living a life of faith is something you need to take very seriously. I wasn’t trying to scare anyone; I want them to get shaken around a little bit. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of going out partying. A lot of kids talk about ‘I’m just living college, what college kids are supposed to do’ — like life is on hold for four or five or six years. The decisions you make here are lifelong decisions. You can’t unhear what you’ve heard. You can’t unsee what you’ve seen, unexperience what you’ve experienced."
Father Walsh, 42 and a priest for six years, arrived at UMD two years ago. He spent 10 years in corporate work prior to becoming a priest. Before his assignment at UMD, he was secretary to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington.
Thanks to Father Walsh and the Catholic Student Center, Maryland students experience fruit in spiritual growth, conversions and vocations.
The Catholic Student Center at UMD dates to 1933, with the formation of a Newman Club. Washington Archdiocese priests began serving as chaplains here in 1955, taking over from Franciscans. In 1962, the Catholic Student Center was built on the northwest corner of UMD’s South Campus.
Father Walsh is quick to credit one of his predecessors, Father Bill Byrne, with bringing a new era of evangelization to UMD during his time as chaplain from 1999 to 2007.
The Catholic Student Center offers numerous programs, services and activities. Among the most popular is a free dinner after 5:30pm Mass every Wednesday. Anywhere from 150 to 300 students attend the weekly Mass and meal.
"It allows an easy avenue for evangelization," said William Low, a senior from Columbia, Md. "CSC members can bring not only non-practicing Catholics to encourage them to rejoin their faith, but non-Catholics to learn about the faith as well."
Retreats are also popular. More than 110 UMD students attended the spring retreat. There also are about 30 Bible study groups, tailgates, seasonal parties, Habitat for Humanity service trips, pro-life advocacy, monthly trips to a home for the elderly, intramural sports, councils for the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters of the Americas, and much more.
Mass is offered daily, and attendance averages 40 to 80 students. About 750 attend weekend Masses. Confession is offered for half an hour before Mass, and Eucharistic adoration is held for five hours each Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The sacramental life is the key," Father Walsh said.
A new program called "Cornerstone: Foundations in Faith" presents the basics of Catholicism through talks by guest speakers at an off-campus location. Some of the students, Father Walsh said, have only a cursory understanding of their faith. Others know the basics, "but there’s huge room for growth and understanding."
Focus — the Fellowship of Catholic University Students — has had its missionaries on campus for six years. They’re "very, very happy evangelizers on campus," said Father Walsh. "They see someone sitting by themselves — they go sit by them. We need to be really, really good in that area."
Neda Karimian, a senior from Baltimore, said Focus helped expand her faith. She had attended a Catholic Student Center retreat her freshman year and through that began attending a Bible study. A year later, she joined the retreat-planning team and became a Bible study leader herself, "reaching out to women on our campus in a specific way."
The center hosts two monthly dinners geared toward vocation. Each attracts 40 to 50 students. Based on that, Father Walsh is beginning discernment groups for those exploring a religious vocation more seriously. About 10 are interested in that, a couple of whom "are talking very seriously about seminary," said Father Walsh. Father Walsh estimates "eight to 10" former UMD students have entered the seminary in the past 10 years.
Two women students also are entering religious life this summer, one with a community in Rome, another with the Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará.
"Two to three more [are] very serious for entering within several months," Father Walsh said. "God has been very generous."
Father Kevin Regan, a 2003 UMD alumnus, is among those whose vocation was fostered at the Catholic Student Center. He was reared in an observant Catholic family and was active in the faith in high school, but "began to drift" in college. He was in a band and had a girlfriend. He met with Father Byrne his freshman year, who advised him to "live your life in college and stay close to the Lord."
By his junior year, he returned more fully to the faith and then discerned the priesthood. "The CSC at Maryland was there for me," said Father Regan, who was ordained in 2008 and now serves at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. "I returned to daily Mass and deepened in my love for Christ and his Church. The strength of the community and of the chaplain, Father Bill Byrne, certainly helped."
There’s also fruit in conversions on campus. This spring, CSC had 19 students in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, including Low. When he first met Father Walsh, Low was a nominal Buddhist who was interested in becoming Catholic through a relationship with his girlfriend and her family. Priest and student started with the very basics at their first meeting, with Father Walsh explaining the Sign of the Cross.
"Father Rob was great at explaining the faith and engaging me in discussions and made it easy for me to learn more," Low said. "The Catholic Student Center community were also phenomenal supporters, and there is definitely something about the Catholic community that makes it appealing to me."
He was one of three students baptized this past Easter vigil. "To me, the importance of the campus ministry cannot be overstated," Low said. "It is great to have a ministry full of young adults like me to know that the faith is not dying — rather, expanding. Lots of people meet each other on campus; from dorm halls to classes to extracurricular activities, students make lots of friends. Having a campus ministry not only brings Catholics on campus together, but it gives an opportunity for students not in the faith to learn about Catholicism."
Anthony Flott writes from
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