Christ in the City
Secular University in New York Getting Focus on Faith
BY Thomas L. McDonald
September 13-19, 2009 Issue | Posted 9/4/09 at 9:01 AM
Bringing the Catholic faith to students in the middle of secular ground zero is a daunting task, but that’s the challenge facing the new team of Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries at New York University.
Centered in the heart of Greenwich Village, NYU is the largest private university in the country, with approximately 50,000 students in 16 different schools. Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald recently spoke with Amanda Pirih, the team director who is leading the group of four missionaries at NYU.
What are the challenges facing young Catholics coming to college for the first time, and what are some challenges that are unique to New York University?
As a new student, the first challenges in those first 72 hours on campus are to find friends, become associated with “something,” and at all costs to simply fit in. As a Catholic college student, depending on which groups are available and organized fellowship activities for new students in particular, it is very easy to get lost in all of the other outlets or activities.
If it’s not clear to me as a new Catholic college student that there are other people like me trying to live out their faith, I will quickly look for the next best thing to provide what my desires for fellowship and friendship entail. Ultimately, students are looking for authentic happiness. Yet they settle for what they think happiness to be: in the party scene, with drinking, perhaps with drugs, and even with sex.
Like every college campus, NYU will present these same challenges. However, being right in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the country, there will be more opportunities for seeking and obtaining false senses of that happiness. And being at the center of a bustling metropolis, constantly amidst changing trends and a fast-paced culture, the unseen pressure to find “happiness” and to find it quickly will prompt these students to pursue those outlets more readily.
Many young Catholics lapse from the faith while in college. How can they best meet the challenge of an aggressively secular environment like NYU/Greenwich Village?
By God’s grace, I never completely lapsed from my faith while in college, but I did experiment with my fair share of partying and drinking, which often brought me into a state of sin. It was a newfound independence and a desire to test my limits that pushed me to try things that would ultimately lead me away from Our Lord. I didn’t understand what true happiness meant — and that it was Jesus. Hanging around friends who were also confused didn’t help my cause, either. As an engineer, I worked hard in class and with my studies. When it came time to have fun, I played equally as hard.
NYU not only presents an aggressively secular environment with the blatant distractions and pressures to fit in with the latest trends, but an aggressive academic environment, as well, in which students will apply a similar energy to their social outlets (if not more) than they do with their studies.
Without true Christian friendship, fellowship with other Catholics my age, and an opportunity to immerse myself in Scripture and the chance to learn and understand the truth of Jesus Christ, any option for happiness was always better than nothing. It wasn’t until I started learning that there was more to life in Jesus Christ that those other distractions and pressures started to fade or even become second rate.
What is your background, and how did you come to be involved with Focus at NYU?
I studied materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was living at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center during my four years as a student and encountered Focus missionaries working on campus, reaching out to students and leading Bible studies. I joined a Bible study along with some of my friends, as we had a number of questions about our faith and didn’t really understand what it meant to live an authentic Catholic life.
Through Bible study, fellowship with other women, and direct mentorship from the missionaries, I found my questions were being answered and my own personal faith was growing deeper. I began leading a Bible study of my own for other college women and mentoring them one-on-one in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.
During my senior year in college, I accepted a job with General Electric and a career opportunity in aircraft engines for post-graduation work. But just a month before graduation, on a retreat in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I understood and accepted a call on my heart to become a missionary myself.
I joined the organization and served as a missionary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I soon accepted the role of leading a team of missionaries and with a team of four helped to start a Focus program at the University of Illinois at Chicago this past year. Serving for my third year and in the role of team director, I will be leading four missionaries for the first time onto the campus of NYU.
Is there any support from the university or faculty sponsorship?
When Focus is invited to new schools, we always operate within the framework of the Roman Catholic Church. In order to send a team of missionaries onto a campus, we need to have the invitation of a local priest, the welcome of the university, the blessing of the local bishop, and a two-year commitment of $50,000 per year from a local sponsoring agency. This has all been true and present for NYU.
The Catholic Center at NYU/St. Joseph University Parish serves approximately 18,000 Catholic students at NYU and surrounding schools. What programs and aid will Focus offer?
We will simply have the opportunity and privilege to be stationed on campus full time and to help foster the connection of students with their own faith, contact with other Catholics, and a realization of the inherent desire on their hearts to share the Gospel with their peers.
The four Focus missionaries will serve as arms and legs to the existing Catholic Center on campus, as we will be able to apply our energy and effort to reaching students on all parts of the campus, sharing our own faith in Jesus Christ, and hopefully bringing them to Mass and the sacraments.
Thomas L. McDonald writes
from Medford, New Jersey.
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