MANASSAS, Va. — Spring break activities for many Catholic college students have evolved from the old pattern of too much beer and too few clothes on a sunny beach. And it’s not just because recent drug violence in Mexico is making partying dangerous there.
“People are sometimes amazed by the many good works performed by students and faculty at even the smaller Catholic colleges,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “At colleges with a fuller understanding of Catholic education, charity and social justice activity are a matter of course.”
Spring break missions are voluntary efforts encouraged at such Catholic colleges, often to foreign countries, that include students working for and evangelizing a needy populace. The work may include repairing or building houses or other facilities, teaching, planting gardens, distributing food or other provisions, even organizing and coaching sports programs for children. Living conditions are often primitive and the work strenuous; missionary students must pay for their own trips.
At Ohio’s Franciscan University of Steubenville, for instance, 215 students will set out this year to spend their vacation in locales as varied as inner-city Chicago, a North Dakota Indian reservation, and Ecuador to evangelize and educate, as well as to render more practical assistance to the poor.
Kevin Kacvinsky is a senior at Franciscan and the student coordinator for Mission of Peace.
“Sometimes the people we minister to are poor financially; other times they are poor spiritually,” Kacvinsky said.
The missions are organized by student leaders who must find faculty or staff advisors to accompany them. The purpose of a mission trip may be to catechize, as when groups of college kids taught religion at Catholic schools in the Bronx, N.Y. Or it may be a sacramental ministry, to bring the celebration of the Mass to isolated Latin American villages, which may not see a priest for years at a time.
From Habitat to Honduras
At Christendom College in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, spring break missionary work has been a mainstay for eight years. Tambi Spitz, associate dean of student life, accompanied undergraduates to Honduras.
“I’m very excited God gave me the opportunity to go. I’m anxious to see what the trip will do for the students’ growth in their faith,” Spitz said on the eve of the trip.
The Christendom missionaries will be taking part in Mission Honduras, an established project of the Franciscans serving poor children in that country.
Students at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland have been involved in student service pilgrimages as long as those at Christendom. This spring break, undergrads from The Mount are going to West Virginia and Florida to help out, but they supplement that with mission trips during breaks every quarter of the academic year.
At St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla., student have entered the Collegiate Challenge of Habitat for Humanity for the second straight year, this time in Lafayette, La.
Further south, the University of Dallas has been involved with alternate spring breaks since 1994, according to Hunter Darrouzet, campus minister for outreach. Students there have been fundraising and attending weekly faith formation classes since October for this year’s trip to a migrant community in Georgia. They will tutor school kids, who will also be on break, and run a Bible camp for them, as well as paint school buildings. The college students will also visit Atlanta.
In Atchison, Kan., Benedictine College will see many of its 1,300 undergrads going on mission trips, as well. A dozen will be serving young people on an Indian reservation; 17 more are going to El Salvador to work with The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging; and 13 athletes will run a Catholic Sports Camp soccer program in Belize. In addition, six more mission trips are being sponsored by the BC chapter of Fellowship of Catholic University Students to India, Mexico and Jamaica.
But the most innovative Benedictine trip may not technically qualify as a spring break activity, even though it takes place in March. Benedictine Father Bruce Swift, chaplain at Lansing State Prison and assistant chaplain at the college, will escort teams of students to play basketball games against prisoners from all three security levels at Lansing.
“This is our third year doing this, as well as playing softball against them in the summer. The kids love it,” Father Swift said. “I try to instill in them what Jesus said: ‘When I was in prison, you visited me.’ They are leery at first, but then they come to realize that these are just normal guys who made bad choices.”
The monk said that the inmates welcome the athletic ministry, and the games are characterized by good sportsmanship on both sides.
Students at The Catholic University of America in the nation’s capital are heavily invested in service initiatives year-round also, according to the university chaplain, Conventual Franciscan Father Robert Schlageter.
“I tell the kids that if we sit up on this hill in northeast Washington and do not get involved with the community around us then we have failed you as a college,” he said.
Father Schlageter is impressed by the number of Catholic U. students who do not go on traditional spring breaks for sun and fun; instead, they apply by the hundreds for a limited number of slots to be missionaries.
“A few years ago, we had one (mission),” the priest said. “Last year, we had five and this year six.”
That number includes three Habitat for Humanity projects, two international trips, and one group of engineering students building a water system in an El Salvador village with Engineers Without Borders. Applicants were turned away from all of these trips, said Emjolee Mendoza Waters, associate campus minister: “We simply didn’t have enough space to accommodate them all.”
At all these Catholic colleges, student missionaries must pay their own way, leading Father Schlageter to quip: “You get to pay $1,000 to be poor for two weeks.”
They raise the capital any way they can. Some sell baked goods; others ask relatives and organize fundraisers; one group sold pro-life T-shirts at the March for Life this year, according to Waters. Any extra money raised goes to the beneficiaries of the mission effort. Students sometimes come back from mission vacation trips and organize shipments of clothes and books and other needed items to the people they visited in the spring.
The campus ministers at these and other Catholic schools admit that beer blasts in Cancun and on Florida beaches are perceived by most students as an essential component of a college education on secular campuses, but they are not nearly as popular among college students who choose to experience their higher education at schools where their faith can be lived out.
One benefit to the missionary students is that they will be able to tell their children about their own corporal works of mercy when they become parents, said Benedictine’s Father Swift.
Ultimately, it’s about loving Christ by lending a hand, according to Franciscan University’s Kacvinsky. “We try to evangelize through our example,” he said. “You can paint a house or you can paint a house with love, for Christ as well as for the poor person living there.”
Paul Barra writes from
Reidville, South Carolina.