Catholic parishes are celebrating Masses for their graduating high-school seniors — but studies show that nearly one out of every three seniors in those pews will leave the Catholic faith during their college career, and even more will stop practicing it.
However, campus ministers believe a new high-school outreach program from the Newman Connection will give them a vital tool in stemming the loss of young Catholics from the Church and promote the New Evangelization on America’s college campuses.
The Newman Connection (NewmanConnection.com), a nonprofit Illinois company that provides support and resources to Newman Centers throughout the United States, has launched a new national outreach program to help Catholic youth bridge the transition from high school to college.
With the tagline "Make a Newman Connection," the program seeks to work with Catholic dioceses to connect Catholic high-school graduates with college campus ministries and information about the Catholic community on their campus before they arrive as freshmen.
"We have to find ways to keep our kids connected to the Church. That’s really the bottom line of this program and the Newman Connection," Bill Zerrusen, president of the Newman Connection, told the Register.
Ninety percent of the 5.5 million Catholics in higher education attend a secular university, and Catholics make up 35% of the freshmen at public campuses, according to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.
But a startling 30% of college-aged Catholics (young adults currently aged 18-24) will leave the faith during these years, and at a higher rate than their peers in other faiths, according to a 2012 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
"The bare-bones facts are that we are losing our kids — they are losing their faith, at an alarming rate," Zerrusen said. "We really feel that the concept of this program can be a game changer."
The process behind the Newman Connection’s high-school outreach program is very simple: Parishes gather the names of graduating high-school seniors after Mass or another event. A volunteer, staff member or youth minister at the parish then enters the names into the database at NewmanConnection.com.
"They enter in the names, and instantaneously the name is sent to a campus minister who has log-in access to our site," said Matt Zerrusen, Bill Zerrusen’s son and Newman Connection’s executive vice president and designer of the system. "The campus minister logs in and sees a link that says: ‘View incoming student.’"
Anyone can also visit NewmanConnection.com and enter a student’s name by clicking "Invite a Student to Connect" on the front page. Entering the student’s information will generate an email to the student with a link inviting them to "Get Connected to Campus Ministry."
Matt Zerrusen said the program funnels the information to campus ministers, who then can contact students over the summer and introduce them to the Catholic college life at their Newman Center before they come to campus.
Origins of the Program
The Newman Connection’s program expands on the College Connection for Catholics (CCC) program pioneered by SerraUSA, an organization promoting Catholic vocations in youth.
Newman Connection fully took over the program in July 2012, with the approval of Bishop Peter Christensen of the Diocese of Superior, Wis., the episcopal adviser for SerraUSA and the SerraUSA board, with a mandate to expand the program to include all Catholic students.
Bill Zerrusen explained that the original CCC program reached out to seniors in Catholic high schools and had gathered 15,000 names last year — but Catholic high schools account for only 10% of all Catholic students, meaning that much more had to be done. "[SerraUSA] saw we had a lot more capacity to do more than they were able to achieve," he said.
Newman Connection’s extensive network, with close to 250 Newman Centers, he said, gave them the ability to take the CCC program to a whole new level, "and really do what the program was intended to do."
"When the campus ministers and the priests have the names, it’s like gold," Zerrusen added. "They get the names; they have the connection."
Campus Chaplains Pleased
Campus ministers explained to the Register that the program is a major breakthrough for them.
Most public universities do not disclose the religious affiliation of their students, leaving them in the dark about who is Catholic on campus. They said they typically have just three weeks at the beginning of the school year to promote their Newman Centers to freshmen; after that, freshmen have generally decided what activities they will involve themselves with during their college career.
"Being able to obtain the names of students and get their emails from the university directory means we can make a personal contact with that student and invite them to be part of our ministry here," said Msgr. Greg Ketcham, chaplain of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of Newman Connection’s advisory board.
"It’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard, frankly," said Father John Baker, chaplain at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "It’s going to be very helpful for me and anybody in campus ministry."
Father Baker said that his campus-ministry outreach currently depends on his volunteers and staff to "make a lot of noise" in those first few weeks in order to get the attention of Vanderbilt’s Catholic students. There is an opening Mass to begin the year. They also set up a booth during freshman-orientation weekend and host events offering free food to students.
He added that students have been "pretty creative" in using social media to identify Catholics among the incoming freshmen class. "Making those connections with freshmen right off the bat is essential," he said. "You can make those connections later, but it’s so much harder."
Outreach to freshmen allows campus ministers an opportunity to catechize students and also to make them partners in evangelizing the broader campus community.
"What excites me the most about this program is what we can do with spiritual multiplication," Msgr. Ketcham said. "If we can get a nucleus of freshmen involved in our campus ministry early in the semester and catechize them, then they can spread the faith to those around them."
The Zerrusens both said they developed the program from their discussions with diocesan officials and campus ministers. They said the dioceses asked that the program leave no Catholic student behind, such as those who attend public schools.
"They said if you’re going to get a chance of getting every Catholic student, you have to go to the parishes," Bill Zerrusen said.
Matt Zerrusen said the Newman Connection works at the highest level to get the endorsement of the bishop, archbishop or cardinal in every diocese or archdiocese in order to implement the program. Newman Connection so far is working with 15 U.S. dioceses to implement the program, including the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., and the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, he said, adding, "We’ve had overwhelming support for this program so far."
Bill Zerrusen said the Newman Connection program costs nothing for a diocese. Each diocese involved in the Newman Connection program appoints a diocesan director to work with parishes and youth ministers to collect the names of Catholic high-school students.
"Working with college campus ministers, high-school campus ministers and youth ministers in general, we are starting to roll out this program," said John Huynh, youth-ministry director for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Huynh said the archdiocese is rolling out a media campaign, marketing the program in the archdiocesan newspaper, at high-school parent nights and with pamphlets placed in the parishes and high schools. Huynh said youth ministers talk with students about signing up for the program and encourage parents to register their kids.
Huynh said he hopes more dioceses will participate: "It’s not okay for us to have any student fall through the cracks. This is a big need in the Catholic Church, and it’s my hope and dream that every diocese implements this."
Matt Zerrusen said he hopes that, long term, Catholic youth will take the initiative to enter their own names into the database and use the resources online. Approximately 250 college ministries have pages on Newman Connection, with Mass, confession and adoration times, events, programs, retreats and more.
"Ultimately, we’ve created this tool for the Church," Matt Zerrusen said. "And we want this tool to be part of the campus visit, part of the decision-making process about whether or not a student will attend this college or that university."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.