Prayerful silence welcomes visitors to the St. Robert Bellarmine Chapel on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.

Navy and tan hues create a subdued color scheme for the small chapel, which seats 350 in dark wood pews.

Immediately, you look toward the altar, and your eyes move upward toward a lovely stained-glass Madonna and Child window above the tabernacle.

Arches fill the space, leading your eyes heavenward as well.

Marble Stations of the Cross line the outer walls. And a statue of St. Thérèse greets you before you enter the small adoration chapel.

Scholarly Saint

The church's namesake is also featured: A portrait of St. Robert hangs on one side wall.

Born in 1542 near Siena, Italy, he became a priest and theologian. Pope Benedict, in a past general audience, discussed his holiness: "His burden of office did not, in fact, prevent him from striving daily after sanctity through faithfulness to the requirements of his condition as religious, priest and bishop."

The Holy Father added that St. Robert gives a "model of prayer and enthusiasm in every activity. … Our saint felt truly a son loved by God, and meditating with serenity and simplicity, in prayer, in contemplation of God was a source of great joy."

As Father John Hardon, whose cause for canonization is under way, wrote, "Bellarmine had a big heart, but he realized the most important faculty that God wants us to use is our mind. He saw God in everything, and as the little treatise explains, every creature, even the lowliest, is a ladder by which we can climb to God."

St. Robert died in 1721 and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930. He was proclaimed a doctor of the Church a year later. His feast day is Sept. 17.

College Catechesis

On one particular Sunday, the choir sang joyfully, in harmonious melody, from the choir loft, a mix of contemporary tunes popular with the college crowd.

"This building is so important, because it serves as a place of worship for so many young people who are making critical decisions about their lives. It's a place where they can come and be themselves and work toward making those decisions that will benefit us all as a society in the long run," said Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria when he dedicated the new chapel on Nov. 7, 2010, which is part of the newly renamed John Paul II Catholic Newman Center.

The Newman Center also serves nearby Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland College, ministering to about 5,000 students total.

The $3 million-plus renovation efforts — part of the diocese's "Rooted in Faith" capital campaign — came to fruition with the dedication. The groundbreaking for the new facilities took place in 2008. Offices and gathering areas were also included in the project. Illinois State Newman ministry started in the late 1950s, when activities were held in a small house, and students attended Mass at Holy Trinity Parish. In 1967, the former center was built. That space is now being used as a library, student recreation space, classrooms and student lounge.

As St. Bellarmine wrote in his On the Ascent of the Mind to God, "What is easier, sweeter, more pleasant, than to love goodness, beauty and love, the fullness of which you are, O Lord, my God?"

Students at his Newman Center, set among the Illinois cornfields, are learning just that.

Amy Smith is the Register's associate editor.