This is the third in a series exploring Catholic campus-ministry centers at secular universities.

Matt Nagle admits he didn’t have the purest of motives when he enrolled in a theology class offered by the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas.

“I might have thought I could meet a girl there I liked,” Nagle said.

Eventually, he did end up seeing a woman regularly, a sister with the on-campus community Apostles of the Interior Life who would become his spiritual director for the next three years. And now Nagle has all the theology classes he can handle — as a third-year student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

He credits St. Lawrence with sparking his vocation, nudging him from a “Catholic in name only” to a priest-in-training for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan.

“It’s a very good place, and there are a lot of good things going on,” he said. “I’m one story, but there are hundreds of people who had very similar experiences when I was there.”

Nagle is among 11 former St. Lawrence participants in the seminary (a 12th was ordained this spring). Five more enter seminaries this fall.

“We’ve never had this many,” said Father Steve Beseau, St. Lawrence’s director. “In a few years, I don’t know why we couldn’t have 20 men in formation at one time.”

St. Lawrence also is producing other religious vocations, conversions and a bounty of lay Catholics returning to a vibrant practice of their faith.

“The thing that stands out most about St. Lawrence is that we have an excellent formation program for the students,” Father Beseau said. “A complete and total formation — intellectually, spiritually, morally and liturgically — that I would compare to any formation program, including Catholic college programs.”

Roots, Resistance, Rationale

The St. Lawrence center began ministering to Kansas’ Catholic students in 1958, assuming the role once handled by a Lawrence parish. Benedictine priests served the center until 1977, when the Kansas City Archdiocese started to administer the program.

The 44-year-old Father Beseau, a Kansas alum, became director in March 2006. He oversees a staff of 20 mostly full-time employees and a budget of $1 million. They minister to Kansas’ estimated 4,000 Catholic students (about 20% of KU’s enrollment) and to a permanent community of faculty, staff and alumni comprising 120 families.

Students, Nagle said, face two main obstacles to their faith while attending the University of Kansas, located about 45 minutes west of Kansas City. First, he said, Kansas has “very much a party atmosphere,” and because of that, students often live “contradictory to what the Church teaches.” Secondly, he added, some faculty are hostile toward Catholicism.

“The worldview was just different than what the Church taught and contradictory to many of the Church teachings,” Nagle said.

The center has served as a counterweight to such pulls, but always in different ways. In the past 25 years, Father Beseau said, St. Lawrence typically has excelled at one particular offering — i.e., social or liturgical programs — but otherwise been limited.

Today, St. Lawrence is trying to present a range of opportunities by basing its programs on the four transcendentals of truth, goodness, beauty and unity.

“One of those four will attract you to the beauty of the Catholic faith,” Father Beseau said. “We’re not reaching out to thousands and thousands of college students in a broad way, but out to hundreds in a very intense way.”

St. Lawrence offers more than 45 programs. Father Beseau talked most excitedly about the St. Lawrence Institute for Faith and Culture, for example, established in 2009. Its offerings include “The Great Books Adventure,” a four-semester course offered through Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. The course, notes the center’s website, helps students experience, through literature of the Western tradition, “what is great and universal in the human condition … the good and the beautiful and the true.” Kansas recently began accepting the course’s 12 credit hours.

Institute activities include annual lectures, a professor series for Catholic faculty to address their faith, a journal, awards, professional groups and support of the arts. In the Genius of Women show, begun four years ago in response to The Vagina Monologues, the Kansas community is invited to share art, music, poetry and other talents that honor women.

Called to Conversion

Conversions to Catholicism are steady — about 15 to 20 each year. Seventeen entered the Church this past Easter.

Some students go even further. Seven St. Lawrence Center coed alumni have entered religious orders, and five are in formation. Thirty alumni are working for the Church in lay positions, and 30 have been ordained as priests.

Nagle, from Overland Park, Kan., began his KU studies thinking of becoming a lawyer or teacher. As he became more involved with St. Lawrence, he began to hear a call to the priesthood. He resisted it, avoiding visits to a seminary and talks with a vocations director. It wasn’t until more than a year after graduating in 2007 that he finally decided to enroll at Kenrick-Glennon.

Sophomore Drew Hoffman plans to join him this fall, another among the archdiocese’s seminarians. He discerned his vocation last summer while helping with Totus Tuus, a youth program where college students witness to elementary and high-school students: “Whatever you need to get closer to God, to build that relationship, the center has it.”

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.