BOSTON — Referring to college students as “walking question marks,” Brother Joseph Donovan said they grapple with the meaning and purpose of life as well as their place in it. “At the end of that four-year process is the rest of life, so, suddenly, the big questions get asked,” said Brother Joe, as he is called by the students.
Last fall, his religious order, the Brotherhood of Hope, was tasked with the significant challenge of ministering to students at a dozen schools in Boston’s Back Bay.
The brothers have served at the second-largest institution of higher learning in Boston, Northeastern University, since 2005. Last year, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley asked them to take on the surrounding schools.
All within a five-minute walking distance, the schools are relatively small, private, non-Catholic institutions with a combined total of 60,000 students. None had Catholic campus-ministry staff last year. At most, they had a Catholic student group, while many had only a nondenominational Christian group to serve students.
The name of the program — Hub, which stands for Hope for Undergraduates in Boston — is a play on words, drawing both from Northeastern’s centralized location as well as Boston’s nickname — the “hub of the universe.” Boston is well known for higher learning, with about 230,000 students at more than 50 colleges in the Boston metro area.
For the first year, the focus of Hub has been building relationships at the schools closest to Northeastern. The idea is to grow organically so that the growth will be sustainable.
The brothers’ campus ministry is marked by their desire to build strong relationships with students. Young people who have spent years or just minutes in the presence of the brothers remark on how the brothers are invested in what they have to say.
While that approach, which Brother Joe calls “relational evangelization,” may seem inefficient, reaching one person deeply allows that person to reach out to others. Part of the ministry is teaching those young people how to invite others to participate in their faith.
The Brotherhood of Hope, founded in 1980, began serving at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1985. They have served at several other colleges over the years, including 11 years at Boston University, which concluded at the same time that the Hub ministry began. Currently, they also run campus ministry at Rutgers and Florida State University.
Their mission, to help people come to know Christ more deeply, expresses itself most clearly on campus, Brother Joe said. Faith, when found in college, often carries young people through the rest of their lives, according to Brother Joe. It is a great gift to them, and it is a great gift to the Church. When students are well-grounded in their relationship with God, they call on him when making important life decisions about their careers, their vocations, choosing spouses and having children. They also tend to pay it forward, becoming leaders in their future parishes, he added.
“Each person who says Yes to God by this experience is really expanding the life and the mission of Christ in the world through the Church,” he said.
Adam Wilson, director of communications for the Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based group that seeks to strengthen the identity of Catholic colleges, said campus ministries must effectively reach out to young people. “In addresses touching on higher education, the Holy Father himself has pointed out the great need to emphasize proper formation of students. Without formation on the ethical and moral level, the flourishing of a Catholic intellectual life can be very compromised,” he said.
Hooked on Faith
Rich Pelosi, a student studying architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, grew up going to Mass regularly, attended Catholic high school and worked at his home parish in Peabody, Mass.
Once he went away to school, he became distant from his faith. He got “caught up in the college lifestyle,” living for weekends and parties.
When he first attended a Northeastern University Life meeting at Northeastern’s Catholic Center, he was shocked to see so many of his peers invested in faith.
After attending a weekend retreat, he too became “hooked” on his faith.
“Before, it would be like: If I have the time to go to church, if I have time to go to the NU Life meetings, I’ll go,” he said. “Something clicked on retreat, and my faith became the priority over everything else.” He spoke of another young man who gave a witness on the retreat and broke down while discussing his faith and life struggles, struggles Pelosi could relate to. On retreat, the two became good friends, and Pelosi said he is one of several male friends who “keep me on my faith game.” The guys get together and talk about topics like purity and not allowing their busy lives to interfere with their faith.
“It’s so easy to get lost in school and social aspects of college. And it’s easy to put certain things on the back burner, and a lot of people do put their faith on there. I mean, I did for the first three years,” he said.
Now, faith comes first, followed by school, and social engagements are a distant third, he added.
Brother Joe said that the social aspect is just one part of campus ministry.
Spiritual and service events are also key in reaching the whole person.
Sometimes, in ministering to young people, there is a reluctance to get “too serious and holy.” It is important to plow the ground for deeper discussions, which may come later, but never shy away from difficult topics.
Young people are ready to be challenged, he said.
Brother Joe said it is like college students are saying: “Be human to us. Be real. Do the fun stuff, but challenge us. We want to learn what our faith means.”
It is not unusual to have one part-time minister on a college campus. The lack of resources has been acutely felt in Boston, where the Archdiocese of Boston has slashed budgets across the board, and campus ministry has taken a significant hit. The Hub project has two full-time and three part-time campus ministers, all members of the Brotherhood, along with four unpaid interns. They also utilize the students they have reached in planning and running events.
This fall, the brothers hope to have student-led events at several of the satellite campuses and continue to invite everyone to shared events like weekend retreats and Sunday Mass. Having one, centralized event eliminates the need to re-create the program 12 times over.
Said Brother Joe, “You can get a lot of bang for your buck if you do this thing right.”
Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.