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BY Dana Mildebrath
Two hundred students — nearly one quarter of the student body — skip dinner every Wednesday night. They aren't too busy to eat, and they don't scramble around later in search of pizza to quiet the rumblings in their stomachs. They skip the meal in order to donate their food to hungry people downtown.
Such generosity is just one sign of the extraordinary spiritual renewal that seems to be sweeping across the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
“When I joined the faculty in 1997, about 10 to 15 students attended daily Mass,” says Edward Sri, an assistant professor of theology at the school. “Today that number has reached 100. We had seven or eight theology majors then; today we have more than 50. In a secular culture, where religion is not at the center of things, a lot of young people are looking for a deeper meaning to life. Students are coming here with a real openness and excitement about growing in their faith.”
Sophomore Andy Swafford, 19, came to Benedictine from Dayton, Ohio, on a football scholarship. “That brought me here, but that's not why I'm staying,” says the religious-studies major, who plans to teach high school and coach football. “I fell in with a great group of friends who challenged me in my faith and built me up. They said, ‘Let's be better men. Christ is a great man. Let's be like him.’
“It was a gradual process for me,” Swafford continues. “I started out here as a Sunday Catholic, but then I started going to daily Mass. The more I went, the happier I was. Now I feel weird if I don't go every day.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Sarah Moore, 21, a senior from Chicago, Ill. “I was born and raised Catholic, but when I came here, I wasn't into it,” says the elementary special-education major. “I found such a support system here from students and staff who enabled me to feel secure about growing in my spiritual life. They fed that. My faith has grown by leaps and bounds.”
There are many ways for students to grow in knowledge of their faith at Benedictine. Students are required to earn nine credit hours in theology and nine in philosophy, and many take elective courses in, for example, theology in film, spirituality in literature, and economics and Catholic social teaching.
About 80% of Benedictine students live on campus, and spiritual development is even part of the training for residence hall assistants (RAs).
“RAs study Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) and learn how they can implement those principles in their roles,” explains Sri. “They aren't just the ‘resident cops.’”
More than 100 students are part of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which cultivates spiritual growth through Bible study and leadership training. Fellowship is also an integral part of FOCUS, and students encourage each other in three particular areas: chastity, sobriety and excellence.
“If I'd have heard the things in high school that I've learned here,” one student told the Register, “I never would have had sex in high school.”
The sacrament of reconciliation is available every day, along with the opportunity to spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “A lot of students go to eucharistic adoration in the chapel on the edge of campus late at night,” says Sri.
“There are very few students who are not involved in some way with their faith,” says Benedictine Father Meinrad Miller, director of campus ministry. “I'd say that about half the students are involved in an active way, through things like FOCUS, the Hunger Coalition, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Ravens Respect Life and the Knights of Columbus. Others are involved more quietly, through Bible reading, praying the rosary or saying night prayers.”
“We have one of the largest and most active student pro-life groups in the country,” adds Sri. Every January, about 80 students go to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life. In addition, they help unwed mothers through donations of things like car seats and baby clothes.
“More than anything else, our daughter has enjoyed the opportunity to minister and join the groups she's always wanted to be a part of,” says Kelly Roper of her 18-year-old daughter, Brea, a music and religious-studies freshman from Platte City, Mo. In January Brea is going to Italy with the college's Chamber Singers, and when they are in Rome she will sing at a papal Mass at St. Peter's. Next summer, she is going to spend 10 weeks working in parish-based youth retreats.
“She is willing to sacrifice the opportunity to earn quite a bit more money and give up the ‘freedom’ of summer vacation to do that,” adds Brea's father, Bob. “She really wants to do it.”
“I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of students at Benedictine College, and have been impressed with their commitment to live out their Catholic faith,” says Kansas City Archbishop James Patrick Keleher. “I appreciate their mature desire to share their faith joyfully with their peers and to witness to their faith by lives of integrity, chastity and fidelity.”
“I can't point to any one thing at the college and say, ‘This program did this,’ or ‘This person did that,’” says Sri. “I look at all this growth as a combination of two things. The students come here wanting to be nourished spiritually, and we give them a lot of opportunities for growth and service.
“The students are not interested in conservative or liberal agendas,” Sri adds. “They just want to grow in their relationship with God.”
Dana Mildebrath is based in Chico, California.