Bridging the College Faith Gap

Campus ministries and other Catholic organizations have been working to bridge the faith gap by inviting more college freshman than ever to live their faith through the sacraments, relationships, prayer groups and even a TV show.

As a University of Nebraska freshman, Zachary Kane led a double life. He attended Mass on Sunday — and the rest of the week he attended to his social life. He realized he wasn’t happy, and the following year, at a campus minister’s urging, he attended a Catholic conference for college students.

The conference changed his life.

“It kind of just gave my life a little more direction,” said Kane, who went on to serve with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta last summer. Now a junior, he leads discipleship groups and Bible studies as part of Focus, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

Focus, based in Northglenn, Colo., has a presence on 50 U.S. campuses.

As college freshmen struggle to balance faith and other priorities — and some consider opting out of their Catholic faith altogether, campus ministries and other Catholic organizations are working to bridge the faith gap between high school and college by inviting more students than ever to live their faith through the sacraments, relationships, activities, prayer groups and even a TV show.

Citing the importance of campus ministry in fostering lifelong Church involvement, the Chicago-based Catholic Extension, which provides funds to assist U.S. Catholic communities, recently awarded more than $1 million to campus ministries to help 500,000 students grow in their faith on 59 college campuses in 30 U.S. dioceses.

“Campus ministry programs create substantive opportunities to train the next generation of Catholic leaders and develop students’ gifts and talents to positively impact them as young adults, as well as the entire Church,” said Frank Santoni, Catholic Extension’s regional director of grants management.

The need for strong ministries is clear: A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University indicates that college freshmen are most likely to make their best friends during their first few weeks on campus, and during that time they also join the organizations they will be part of for their whole college career, according to Judy Cozzens, chairwoman of the USA Council of Serra International’s program College Connection for Catholics.

With the goal of helping incoming freshmen practice their faith on campus, this summer the College Connection for Catholics sent more than 10,000 new college students information on parishes, Newman Centers and campus ministries on and near their campuses — nearly double the number it sent last year, the program’s seventh year. College Connection also sends the students’ names and addresses to Catholic ministries and organizations on 1,100 campuses.

“If a young person has Catholic friends, he’ll have a friend to go to Mass with and take part in activities with,” Cozzens said. “If they can find an active Catholic friend, they’re more likely to participate in church functions.”

While not all are benefitting from CCC data yet, several campus ministries around the country said they appreciate help in reaching students. The welcome events, activities fairs and other efforts to establish one-on-one contact with students have resulted in increasing numbers of freshmen in their ministries this fall.

“Right now we have more students in leadership development than ever before. We have more Bible studies than we’ve ever had before, and just more students involved than we’ve ever had before,” said Jeremy Rivera, national communications director for Focus. One reason for the growth is that Focus expanded to five new campuses this fall.

Gordy DeMarais, founder and executive director of St. Paul’s Outreach, a St. Paul, Minn.-based ministry with branches in five states serving 11 campuses, agreed that efforts to reach students are working. Campus retreats are full, with waiting lists this year, and University of Minnesota missionaries gathered eight pages of student names and e-mail addresses at an activities fair.

Catholic Community

Besides helping students grow in faith by involvement in a Christian community, a goal of campus ministry is to offer a better alternative to negative activities, said Brother Joe Donovan, a member of the Brotherhood of Hope community and a Catholic chaplain at Northeastern University in Boston. It’s one of four ministries the Brotherhood of Hope operates on campuses in the eastern United States. Attendance at Mass and programs continues to increase every year, possibly because of outreach efforts, he said.

The Brotherhood’s Florida State University campus ministry has received a grant from Catholic Extension. Other schools receiving grants are located in dioceses from Alexandria, La., to Yakima, Wash.

Many things pull at students on campus, including the party scene with drinking, sex and drugs. Some kids compromise their values to fit in, Brother Joe said. “It’s all out there at a level that most people, if they haven’t been on college campuses for some time, are absolutely shocked at.”

He added, “Basically we’re trying to get them connected through relational evangelization with their own faith so they can come to experience the relevancy, the vibrancy of an active Christian community, which hopefully then will translate into something they can take with them when they leave college.”

Freshmen are experiencing a new kind of freedom for the first time, and many students stop practicing their faith, DeMarais said, adding that just 15% of 18- to 25-year-olds attend Mass every Sunday. “It is the case that if freshmen don’t get connected with a strong set of relationships and strong Catholic involvement then after a year chances are pretty high that they’ll be abandoning the practice of faith in adult life,” he said.

A key part of the mission of St. Paul’s Outreach is bringing students to conversion by showing them a different way of life, DeMarais said. In addition to programs, the outreach offers student households — homes where students live and share faith together.

Reaching out to freshmen and helping them get connected or stay connected to their faith through relationships with other students involved in the ministry is a primary goal of the Brotherhood of Hope’s ministry, as is encouraging students to move into leadership, Brother Joe said. In addition to welcome events, prayer meetings and liturgies, Brother Joe sometimes recommends that freshmen watch segments of the Brotherhood’s TV show Hope on Campus, available on, which highlights their campus outreach.

Establishing friendships with students is important, Rivera agreed. “Then we kind of do the invitation to the sacraments, and that’s oftentimes where kids have their transformative experiences, in adoration or at Mass or confession.”

Brian McCaffrey had a head start when he arrived at the University of Kansas in Lawrence this fall: He’d already been to the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center for Mass while visiting his two older sisters.

Whether students are invited by missionaries or find their own way to campus ministries, ultimately it’s not about programs but where they’re going in their relationship with God, DeMarais said. “It’s going someplace. It’s bringing students into something and helping them move forward.”

Acknowledging that temptations often draw students away from the Church, McCaffrey said he has chosen to get involved in a Focus Bible study, retreats, classes and Eucharistic adoration at the Catholic Center.

“I heard a lot of students lose their faith,” McCaffrey said, “and I made it my goal that I was going to college to grow in faith.”

Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.