Reaching college students with the faith is a challenge; they are a transient crowd, and September’s fervor often dwindles by December.
But St. Irenaeus Ministries in Rochester, N.Y., has a different story to tell.
This apostolate, founded in 1993 by former Protestant minister David Higbee, has sparked an unusual number of conversions and vocations among local collegiates, including six young men discerning the priesthood and two young women discerning religious life.
The students who attend its Bible studies and fellowship activities are deeply committed to a growing community and family of faith.
St. Irenaeus Ministries is an umbrella ministry with several programs: Bible studies, a Friday night fellowship for college students and young professionals, spiritual guidance and faith mentoring, and lessons in ancient Greek.
The diversity of ministries and age groups gives local students access to a wide base of older members of the community who open their homes and hearts to the students, encouraging them by their own example and advice.
Todd Duncan, 22, a student in the information technology honors program at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), noted that this age difference is a great enrichment for the youth.
“When young men see older men who have grown in their faith for their whole lives, it gives them hope,” he said. “A community like Irenaeus gives the zeal of young men and women a focus, and the guidance of those who have gone before them keeps them from straying too far off course.”
Marie Griffiths, an assistant campus minister at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, commented that the range of ages and experience at St. Irenaeus Ministries has given her a point of reference for her work.
“It’s a model for building a community on campus, as well as a place full of resources and living witnesses for my students,” she said. “It has been a great help to draw from the years of experience of those involved with Irenaeus.”
Much of that experience and wisdom comes from Higbee himself, whose years as a Protestant pastor and as a director of adult education programs at St. Thomas the Apostle parish gave him plenty of experience in ministry, especially in catechesis. In fact, one of Higbee’s most outstanding gifts is his ability to teach the faith with depth, dynamism, and demand.
Great teachers combine a penetrating grasp of their material with a clear and vivid style of communicating it to their students — not only by the words they use, but also by the witness they give.
A Biblical scholar proficient in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Higbee has an uncompromising commitment to Catholic faith. His prayer life, passion for Christian charity, realistic view of human nature, keen logic and sharp sense of humor resonate with the youth, who find in him a wise and sometimes tough coach who is always challenging them to go higher, both spiritually and intellectually.
Not surprisingly, his demanding teaching-mentoring style has had a dramatic impact on many youth, sparking a growing number of vocations and conversions in the Rochester area.
Peter Mottola, 21, met Higbee during his freshman year in RIT’s honors program in information technology. When a friend invited him to a Tuesday night Bible study, the cheerful and easygoing Methodist evangelical was hooked.
“This was the first time that the weight of the claims of the Catholic Church really hit me,” he said. “The level of the scholarship was astounding, but it wasn’t so high falutin that you couldn’t follow it. Each week brought me deeper into the Gospel than I had ever been, so each Wednesday morning I began to look forward to the next Tuesday evening.”
Not long thereafter Mottola enrolled in RCIA and was accepted into the Church, taking “Irenaeus” as his confirmation name. Today, Mottola is one of the most committed members of the ministry and is pursuing his vocation to the priesthood in Becket Hall, a house of discernment for aspirants to the priesthood in the Rochester Diocese.
Conversions from all quarters have flowered in the ministry’s short existence. Craig Rideout, 41, is a Senior IT project manager at Clover Capital Management Inc. Rideout’s atheism, cynical wit, and keen sense of the absurd made him a hard sell, yet Higbee reached him in a way no one else could.
“Prior to meeting David,” he said, “I had not really read the Bible. By that time in my life, I had hardened my defenses against religion and probably would have continued on my path were it not for David. I truly doubt another individual with the proper ‘credentials’ to overcome my well-honed cynicism would have come along.”
After his conversion, Rideout became a youth minister at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Irondequoit, and then went on to help Higbee found the youth outreach at St. Irenaeus. On the side, he began another sort of youth work: a growing family of six children.
As the ministry expands, the St. Irenaeus youth are putting their talents to work to spread the faith. They created the St. Irenaeus Ministries website (siministries.org), where they began distributing Higbee’s Bible studies. They invite their friends and acquaintances to St. Irenaeus for fellowship or a Bible study, using the ministry as a home base for evangelization.
Some have even gone on to start their own ministries.
Steven Fraysier, 22, got to know Higbee during high school. A civil engineering major at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he has started a young men’s group on campus as a way of passing on the same “unvarnished enthusiasm” for the faith that he learned from Higbee’s example.
Some have said that there is no such thing as a second-generation Catholic, because each generation must embrace the faith as a personal option for Christ and his Church. Higbee believes that this first-generation faith is taking root in a quiet but real way, particularly in the young Catholics he sees at St. Irenaeus Ministries.
“They are not defensive or belligerent,” he observed, “but honest, open and very confident in their faith.”
With the progress that St. Irenaeus Ministries has made in the past few years, there is reason to hope that this rising tide of confident first-generation Catholics — future priests and former atheists alike — will make a strong impact on the world that awaits their witness.
Trish Bailey is based in
Webster, New York.