Fraternity Once for Excluded Catholics Enjoys Spiritual Revival in U.S.
BY Kimberly Jansen
October 4-10, 2009 Issue | Posted 9/25/09 at 2:04 PM
On a college campus, it isn’t uncommon to hear of a 21st birthday “bar crawl” where a group of students stops at as many taverns as possible in one evening — often leaving the guest of honor so intoxicated he can barely walk home.
Members of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) often end up on their knees at the end of the night, too, but for a different reason. Each month the group hosts a “church crawl” in which members attend Mass together at a different Catholic parish around the city.
Nationally, Phi Kappa Theta (PKT) traces its history to the late 1800s, when Catholic men were actually denied admission to most college fraternities. In fact, the group’s original letters were the Greek initials for “The Catholic Fraternity.”
Don’t get the wrong idea though, said Matt Litt, a UNL graduate student and founding father of PKT’s Nebraska Pi chapter.
“We’re not just nerds or holy rollers,” Litt said. He emphasized that PKT stands on four pillars — fraternal, academic, social and spiritual — and that maintaining proper balance is crucial.
In addition to receiving formation in the faith through Bible studies and retreats, he and his frat brothers are competitive in intramural sports leagues and annually raise money for Children’s Miracle Network with a “Ragin’ Cajun’ Cookout.”
Phi Kappa Theta got a jump-start at UNL several years ago when news of an intoxicated Greek student falling out of a third floor window reached Father Robert Matya, chaplain at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Lincoln. Despite a growing number of young people participating in Eucharistic adoration, retreats and Bible studies at the Newman Center, this preventable occurence heightened Father Matya’s desire to introduce even more students, particularly campus leaders, to a relationship with Christ.
He approached Matthew Hecker, dean of students, who suggested that Father Matya start a fraternity of his own.
“I think one of the keys to campus social life — at least on this campus — is our Greek system,” Hecker said. “It certainly is the laboratory from which most of our student leaders come.”
As such, “[Phi Kappa Theta] is really an opportunity in a sense to evangelize the campus” from the inside out, Hecker said.
Father Matya discovered that a Catholic fraternity actually thrived at UNL in the 1920s, but was forced to close during the Depression. Some 80 years later, in 2005, he gathered freshmen to renew its charter.
One of those men was Jake Mach. “Father Matya presented PKT in such a way that it could be a guiding light,” said Mach, a seminarian for the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., “to show what it means to be really Greek. Our motto per se is ‘Be a beacon, not a bunker.’”
For example, instead of hosting typical house parties focused on alcoholic consumption, Litt said the Phi Kap brothers plan social activities with local sororities like ice skating and sand volleyball.
“There’s more to the social aspect of the Greek system than just going out and drinking,” he said. “Our goal is to show the women in the Greek system that there are chivalrous guys who don’t just want to party.”
Iowa State Revival
The Nebraska Pi chapter is only one of nearly 50 chapters nationwide affiliated with Phi Kappa Theta — which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its inception as a merger between two similar Catholic groups this year.
By the late 1960s, in the interest of ecumenism, PKT removed from its constitution the “Catholic clause” that required members to show a valid baptismal certificate prior to membership.
However, according to Mike Murphy, 1981 alumnus of Iowa State University’s chapter, a little over half of the current chapters — while remaining welcoming to men of all faiths — have either maintained or returned to their Catholic roots.
Murphy’s alma mater in Ames, Iowa, is an example of the latter.
“By the mid-1990s, the fraternity was drifting away from its original purpose, which was to help young men graduate with their faith intact,” Murphy said.
Disappointed to see the chapter close, Murphy and his fellow alumni decided to get involved and “return the integrity of the Catholic heritage to the fraternity.”
From just four active members in 2004, the chapter has grown to 35 men, one of which is Father Dennis Miller, associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Student Center in Ames. Father Miller eats dinner at the PKT house every week, Murphy said, and often hangs around afterward to play pool or foosball with the guys.
This setting makes the topic of faith seem so natural, said Evan Tinker, 2007 alumnus of Kansas State University, whose chapter history tells a similar story.
“Religion was not a taboo subject,” Tinker said, recalling his days living in the Phi Kap house. “It was perfectly normal to bring up any sort of Catholic teaching while you were on the back deck having a beer.”
For Nebraska’s Father Matya, “It is very inspiring … to have men who openly talk about their faith and encourage each other to grow.”
According to Murphy, strong faith-based chapters can be found across the country, from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina to San Diego State University.
National Phi Kappa Theta’s president, Kevin Lampe, agreed.
“Our chapters have been successful in places where there are a good percentage of Catholic men already on campus,” said Lampe, a 1983 graduate of Western Illinois University and PKT member. “We look at chapters in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest.”
‘Proud of Our Heritage’
While recognizing that PKT is “proud of our Catholic heritage,” Lampe also emphasized the importance of welcoming men of all faiths.
As it happens, the brotherhoods in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, among others, include several non-Catholic members.
“[The non-Catholics] were really attracted to the quality of character that the men of the fraternity show,” Litt said. “We meet the guys where they’re at, as long as they’re willing to grow in their faith.”
Litt admits he initially joined PKT just to make a name for himself on campus, spending several years “going through the motions.”
At the invitation of his fraternity brothers, Litt attended a retreat his junior year that prompted a powerful conversion of heart.
“That night in adoration I told God I was done fighting him and I wanted whatever he wanted for me,” Litt said. Two years later, he graduated, married a Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionary, and now serves as the chapter’s advisor.
Lampe credited such alumni leadership and support for much of PKT’s recent success.
“[The older alumni] are realizing that the fraternity … was one of the keys to success in their families and careers,” and they have a desire to give back, said Lampe, who owns a communications firm in Chicago.
Murphy attested to the impact of his PKT membership and the permanent friendships he made there. Over the years, he said he has witnessed many a fraternity brother’s wedding and even served as the godfather for some of their children.
PKT’s ability to form lifelong friendships is related to the fraternity’s spiritual pillar, according to Mach. “It’s a more intimate relationship based on faith rather than just going to parties,” Mach told the Register. “It’s not that we have each other’s backs.
“We have each other’s souls.”
Kimberly Jansen writes
from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Information Visit PhiKaps.org.
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