Faith on Campus: Ivy League

A critical factor in Catholic Ivy league students navigating the intensely competitive academic environment while living and growing in understanding of their Catholic faith is involvement and participation in a Catholic campus-ministry program.

Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University became a part of the parish mission of the Church of Notre Dame, in Morningside Heights, in 1988.
Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University became a part of the parish mission of the Church of Notre Dame, in Morningside Heights, in 1988. (photo: Ajay Suresh / CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Ivy League colleges are renowned for academic excellence and rigor. They are considered by many ranking organizations to be the most demanding and prestigious academic institutions in the world. 

While these elite eight academic institutions are among the best in the world, their students face many of the same challenges adjusting to college life that face all college students. 

A critical factor in Catholic Ivy league students navigating the intensely competitive academic environment while living and growing in understanding of their Catholic faith is involvement and participation in a Catholic campus-ministry program. 

“Christ promises peace,” said Dominican Father Timothy Danaher, Catholic Student Center director and chaplain at Dartmouth College

“At the end of all our activity, only he gives us that kind of rest, so we can sleep easy and see our neighbor clearly and move forward with a serene trust in life,” he said, adding, “Attend Sunday and daily Masses. There’s no other way to grow.” 

“The benefit to a student having a robust faith life is sanctifying grace leading into eternal life,” emphasized Father Danaher. 

“I would say that nothing is more important than a personal relationship with God,” agreed Father Daniel O’Reilly, who formerly served as campus minister at Columbia University and is now pastor at St. Philip Neri Church in the Bronx. “In the chaos of a student’s life on campus, that is the best way to remain focused and grounded. As they grow older, they will never regret the time with God.” 

“There’s the famous quote from Socrates in Apologia that an unexamined life is not worth living. I would suggest that an unexamined faith is not worth believing,” said Father O’Reilly. “[Students] should read the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton and Lewis, but also, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Hitchens and Dawkins. They should know exactly why Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question.”

Register contributor Father Roger Landry is the current campus chaplain at Columbia.

Father Landry, in his welcome-back homily on Sept. 3, told students: 

“A huge welcome to all our new students and a great welcome back to all of our returning students. This new academic year about to start is one in which we hope to grow together in love of God and of each other. Jesus wants to accompany us up close so that we can make 2023-2024 a true year of the Lord. … So as we begin this new year, which is a time to set good resolutions, I’d urge you maturely to make resolutions above all about how to act on the thirst God has placed in you for him, how to burn for his peace and find it, how to rest in him, study in him, and ultimately live in him. 

“… St. Paul called us not to conform ourselves to these ever-changing trends, but to have our mind renewed, indeed reborn, by focusing on our relationship with the Lord. We aspire here at Columbia Catholic Ministry and the Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life to help in that renewal of the mind by offering an array of short classes on various aspects of the faith, Bible studies, lectures, one-on-one and group conversations, and more, so that just as you’re learning about history, biology, engineering, literature, philosophy, languages and other subjects, you may also learn about God and even to encounter him personally. This is the renewal the God who gave us our brains most wants us to have. Please come hungry and thirsty as we seek to learn together. But the renewal of our minds is meant to lead to the renewal of our hearts and the renewal of our whole life. … We obviously desire to be the Lord’s true disciple. That’s why we’re here at Mass tonight. We also hope our family members, friends and others we care about to be true disciples of Jesus, too. …. This means thinking as he thinks, willing as he wills, choosing as he chooses, serving as he serves and loving as he loves.

“… What profit would there be to gain the whole world — Columbia degrees, Nobel Prizes, MVP awards, championships, money, power, pleasure, fame and more — but in the end lose what’s most important, lose God, and lose the ultimate purpose and meaning of our life? It doesn’t have to be an either-or, but there must be a priority. And at the beginning of this new school year, through the help of the word of God, the Lord is helping us to make a wise choice.”



Growing in Faith

There are many things Ivy League college students, and all college students, can do to grow their faith while attending college. 

“I think there are four things: sacraments, prayer, study and friends, said Dominican Father Edmund McCullough, associate university chaplain at the Brown-RISD Catholic Community. “First, go to Mass on Sundays and holy days, and go to confession frequently. Without that, it’s hard to stay Catholic in college, let alone grow in the faith. 

“Second, spend some time conversation with God every day. This habit of speaking and listening (preferably in front of the Blessed Sacrament) makes friendship with him real and effective in a student’s daily life. We become like the friends we spend time with, and this is true for our time spent with God as well. 

“Third, study truth. Students spend hours studying math, biology or literature, but they also need to study their faith and understand it: We can’t love what we don’t know. 

“Fourth, make and maintain friendships with your fellow Catholic students. Friends can do things like serve the poor together or go hiking in a campus-ministry setting. But you also need peers to talk to about the difficulties of life and the difficulties of life as a Catholic student. We are shaped by the people we associate with, and friendships based on a common love of God and neighbor will shape students positively for their whole lives.” 

He added, “Catholic campus ministry can provide a place where students can relax and stop comparing themselves to others for a while. The knowledge of one’s faith and the practice of it ought to grow with the rest of the person. Students develop intellectually and personally a great deal in college, and their faith life ought to grow at the same pace. It would be a tragedy if a Catholic student found herself in ‘Calculus III’ and yet couldn’t explain who Jesus is and why we worship him.” 

Here’s a brief synopsis of the campus-ministry programs at each of the eight Ivy League colleges and universities.


Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

The Brown Catholic Community is led by its chaplain, Dominican Father  McCullough. 

“Our purpose is to offer students opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ and to broaden their appreciation of their Catholic faith,” said Father McCullough. “We are a community of faith that strives to know, love and serve God through divine worship, prayerful study and charitable action. We are a diverse assembly bound together as a fellowship of believers seeking to communicate the love of God to one another and the broader community.”

“Being grounded in the timeless truths of faith can help one keep perspective when studying difficult topics in class,” added Father McCullough. 

“Especially at a place like Brown, being Catholic automatically brings you into contact with people from all over the world. This bondedness into the Mystical Body of Christ can help the student to bring peace and unity where often in the world there is conflict and division.” 


Columbia University, New York City 

“[The] ministry is based on the principles of Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Vatican document on seminary formation,” said former chaplain Father O’Reilly of Columbia Catholic Ministry. “What is good for seminarians is good for every Catholic. The document said the focus should be on four areas: 1) spiritual, 2) intellectual, 3) pastoral and 4) human. We change the terminology a little, so we have: 1) Mass, 2) lectures, Bible studies and seminars, 3) service projects, community outreach and 4) dinners, parties, movie nights, etc.”

Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries have an active presence at Columbia University. The campus-ministry page also promotes Mass at churches a short walk away from the urban New York campus. The FOCUS missionaries offer small-group Bible study. There is also an active Facebook page @ColumbiaCatholicMinistry


Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

The Cornell campus ministry is a campus ministry of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, and seeks to foster intellectual growth through the celebration of the liturgy and by providing a place to form authentic Christian relationships. 

The Cornell Catholic Community is led by Father Daniel McMullin, the director. 


Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire

Students attending Dartmouth College can connect with their faith through the Aquinas House Catholic Center or “AQ.”

On Monday evenings, campus ministry gathers to prepare home-cooked meals for fellow Dartmouth students. On Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m., the chaplain leads a reading group on Church history, poetry and theology. 

Father Danaher characterizes the campus-ministry program at Dartmouth this way: “The goal of every campus ministry is the same: Christ himself. Through sacraments and community, we must learn, pray to him, be healed by him, live like him. Our ministry has for some time been served by the Dominican friars, with a focus on study. 

“Our physical spaces themselves feature a library and study rooms open around the clock, with a kitchen to fuel further book time. The chapel also is a space of study, not simply from daily homilies, but as a place of quiet prayer. 

“Our patron, Thomas Aquinas, before his exams at the University of Paris, had 24 hours to prepare, the first half of which he spent in the chapel, leaning his head against the tabernacle, before cramming the last 12 at his desk. We do have community meals, sports teams, local hikes and swim outings, but all are ways of learning Christ’s way of life together.”


Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Harvard Catholic Center partners with FOCUS missionaries. The missionaries work to build personal relationships with students and form them as missionary disciples of Christ. 


University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

The Penn Catholic Newman Community is the first Newman Center in the country, established in 1893, and offers a variety of resources, Masses, adoration and activities, with FOCUS having an active presence. 


Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry is centered at The Aquinas Institute, a mission of the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, to the Catholic population at Princeton. Its purpose is to meet the spiritual, sacramental and pastoral needs of students, faculty and staff. 


Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Catholics are the largest religious denomination on the Yale campus. 

St. Thomas More, the Catholic Chapel and Center, is the home for Catholic students on Yale’s campus. Mass is celebrated in the St. Thomas More Chapel (renovated in 2008), and there are many opportunities for students to deepen their faith life and relationship with God with small faith groups, programs and retreats.

Editor’s Note: This series highlights a variety of campus ministries. Read the other parts: the introduction, Great Lakes, Midwest and South and Southwest and West; also learn about FOCUS ministry. To learn more about Catholic life at college, also see our annual guide and our “Education” section.

Sean P. Dolan is a Catholic communications professional and founder of Dolan Communications.