I have always had a strong faith — including throughout college.
The faith foundation I received from my parents found a welcoming place at the Newman Center on my Big Ten university campus, St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As I put it in a “Spirit & Life” column for the Register during summer 2006, “Amid the large, public university, St. John’s was a refuge, a place to encounter Christ — a home away from home.”
We were encouraged to live our faith on campus and prepare ourselves to use our learning in the world once we graduated. Through Bible studies, Mass, social activities and retreats, we were immersed in our faith.
Catholic convert Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman — and namesake for the campus ministries that bear his name — valued education because he knew that it forms people to serve God in the world. He said: “I shall do good; I shall do his work; I shall be a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it — if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling. Therefore, my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands. What have I in heaven, and apart from you, what do I want upon earth? My flesh and my heart and my portion forever.”
Participating in the Mass as part of one of the choirs was a true blessing for me as a college student. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater to sing once again. St. John’s hosted an alumni weekend to reunite singers from a number of graduation classes to record a CD and sing for Mass. Being back in the beautiful chapel, singing favorite songs and visiting with old friends, I was reminded of how God led me to the University of Illinois. God showed me countless times — then and now — why it was exactly where I needed to be. My faith was nourished there.
That beautiful July weekend, as we sang beloved songs like The Beauty of Holiness and parts of the Mass, our voices blended in praise. Music united us, connected us to one another and to God. We indeed made a joyful (and harmonious) noise to the Lord.
Connecting students to the faith in a faith-filled community is exactly what a Newman Center should do. They have a long legacy in the United States.
According to NewmanConnection.com, which helps Newman Centers and their students connect online, “The first Newman Center was established in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania,” and there are approximately 1,500 centers in the U.S.
Newman Centers at the University of Illinois and such schools as Texas A&M, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Kansas (all have been profiled in these pages), as well as others, are beacons of light among the secular. And well they should be.
The Cardinal Newman Society, which is dedicated to promoting Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and supporting Newman Centers, compiled data from several sources (estimates are based on various sources and not a precise count; these do not include students at two-year colleges and in graduate programs): In 2009, there were about 2.6 million Catholic undergraduates at four-year colleges in the U.S., with about 11% of them attending Catholic colleges, 25% attending other private institutions, and 63% attending public institutions.
That means most Catholic students are being served by Newman Centers and Catholic ministries.
Newman Centers have a responsibility to be spiritual homes to college students so that they will not ignore or abandon their faith during the college years. Yes, I knew fallen-away Catholic students. But I knew many more who were faithful Catholics on campus.
St. John’s (and so many other Catholic ministries) understands that “those in charge of education can reasonably be expected to give young people instruction respectful of the truth, the qualities of the heart, and the moral and spiritual dignity of man” (Catechism, 2526).
They are supported by groups like Fellowship of Catholic University Students (which sends missionaries to host Bible studies and offer one-on-one mentoring) — and they even offer housing. In the fall of 2008, St. John’s Catholic Newman Center opened a second dorm in order to accommodate more student residents. I was one of the blessed ones to call Newman home for four years.
I thank God that my college memories revolve around Christ-centered activities. I pray that’s true for new and returning students this academic year. Because it’s not just about getting through your classes to earn a diploma. It’s about becoming the person God meant for you to be, with Christ as your guide on campus. As Cardinal Newman duly noted: “This is the very definition of a Christian: one who looks for Christ.”
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for Newman Centers and the students they serve.
Amy Smith is the Register’s associate editor.