Frisbees and Bibles for Freshmen: Catholic Chaplains’ ‘Rush Week’ to Reach New Students on Secular College Campuses
Priests see an increase in fervor among college-age Catholics.
MARQUETTE, Mich. — Pope Francis will probably never visit Northern Michigan University.
At least not in the flesh. But since 2021 he has dropped in at the beginning of each school year by giant poster board through the moon roof of a “popemobile” — actually the Catholic chaplain’s black 2018 Subaru Forester.
That, along with royal-blue T-shirts, royal-blue flying discs and royal-blue signs — each with a logo — helps brand the school’s campus ministry and call Catholics to take part.
“Hopefully, everyone starts to recognize when they see a royal-blue T-shirt on campus, they think ‘Catholics,’” said Father Dustin Larson, the public school’s Catholic chaplain.
Cornhole, four-square, a block party and a bonfire on the beach by Lake Superior are among the other get-to-know-you events the Catholic campus ministry offers at the beginning of the school year.
“You build that bridge of trust, and eventually you can make that invite to bring them closer to Jesus,” Father Larson said.
That First Week
Northern Michigan’s is among many Catholic campus ministries in the United States scrambling to connect with freshmen right away as the new school year begins.
“One of the most important times in the life of a college freshman is the first week,” said Kevin Bohli, who directs ministries for youth, college campuses and young adults for the Diocese of Arlington in northern Virginia.
“They say if you don’t get a young person involved in campus ministry during the first week, you probably never will.”
At George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia, that means a luau — a pig roast with games that recently drew 1,000 students. The Catholic campus ministry at the University of Mary Washington, an hour to the south, recently sponsored an axe-throwing night with the chaplain.
The social events are meant to start a conversation that leads to God. George Mason had 12 non-Catholic students join the Church last year; it averages 15. At the University of Mary Washington, 29 female students participated in a women’s group last semester discerning a call to religious life.
Chaplains who work with young people are fighting downward trends among young Catholics.
A still-widely-cited survey by Pew Research Center in 2009 found that about 10% of American adults raised Catholic had left the Church, that almost half of those left before age 18, and that about 30% of them left between ages 18 and 23. It also found that Catholics leaving the Church outnumbered people joining the Church nearly four to one.
“Because the culture is definitely post-Christian, we should not be surprised when high-school students and college students leave the Church,” Bohli said. “But I would say that if you put the effort in and put the resources behind it and build a strong ministry, you can actually have the exact opposite.”
Numbers Down, Fervor Up?
While nationwide numbers are trending down, some see an increase in fervor among college Catholics.
Father Roger Landry, the Catholic chaplain at Columbia University in New York City, told the Register that he believes Catholic students there “share who they are, which includes their faith, far more freely” than Catholics at such places did a generation ago.
“Those who come from faithful families take their faith way more seriously than they did 30 years ago,” said Father Landry, 53, who graduated from college in the early 1990s, “because it’s far more distinctive. … I don’t think Columbia students feel besieged here, at all, on a secular campus, but they do recognize they’re different.”
About 40 to 60 students come to the campus ministry’s dinner after the 5 p.m. Mass on Sunday and after the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Wednesday. Meals are prepared by students, who get a $250 budget for each one. Since the students come from all over the world, the meals have an international flavor. About 30 to 50 people attend the 12:10 p.m. Mass at nearby Notre Dame Church on Monday through Saturday, the vast majority of them students, he said.
“We’re starting to see even on the most secular campuses that there’s a real hunger for what’s on the Church’s menu,” said Father Landry, who is the founding chaplain of the Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life at Columbia (and a Register columnist).
Gift of the Gospels
A new giveaway is in the works to aid college students in delving deeper into Scripture.
Word on Fire, the Catholic media organization founded by Bishop Robert Barron, plans in September to give 12,400 paperback editions of the Gospels to about 90 campus ministries.
The book is Volume 1 of a series of portions of the Bible published by Word on Fire. Each volume includes commentaries on Scripture passages by Bishop Barron and by saints, including Church Fathers, as well as sacred art.
The target audience is students who are attending Bible study sessions through their campus ministries, “to really help students who are already Catholic to go deeper, or to help students who are just starting to discover their faith to use the Gospels to grow in their faith,” said Matt Paolelli, development marketing director for Word on Fire.
More than 2,000 donors have given (the average is about $96) since the Gospels program was announced Aug. 1, he told the Register. (A $20 donation equals one volume donated.) As of late August, Word on Fire had raised a little more than $200,000 for the project.
Some people give from gratitude. Some give as a prayer intention.
“There has been a tremendous response to this campaign, and it’s also been gratifying to hear from people how important it was to encounter the Gospels during their college years, the effect that it had on them. And it’s also disheartening to hear from people saying their own children have left the faith, and they’re making this donation in honor of the hope that their children will rejoin the Church,” Paolelli said.
Religion in the Weight Room
Overall, accompaniment is vital. Drawing college kids to church requires meeting them where they are.
For athletes, that means the weight room.
The slogan for campus ministry at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, is “Fit for the Kingdom.”
Father Rafael Capó, the school’s vice president for mission, doesn’t mean that just metaphorically.
Father Capó, 55, started lifting weights and body building in high school and kept going. He bench presses 315 pounds and squats 360 pounds.
He uses weight training as a means of drawing athletes to God.
“First, they come asking advice on how to train and exercise. But then that becomes the door to engage in conversations about faith,” Father Capó said.
The Best Evangelizers
Several chaplains who spoke with the Register described a kind of multiplier effect that occurs when young people become evangelizers themselves, drawing their friends to church.
“At the end of the day, it’s the personal invitation, the same one that’s in the very first chapter of John’s Gospel: ‘Come and see,’” said Father Christopher Ford, 33, the director of campus ministry for the Diocese of Bridgeport in southwestern Connecticut, which includes seven colleges.
“How do we form ourselves and our young people to have that conversation?”
“In college you’re told you can be whatever you want to be. Someone needs to tell them that one of the things they can be is holy. And that that is a path to joy and fulfillment; in fact, it’s the only one,” Father Ford said.
“This place, this community, has to be an icon of the Father’s love for every person who encounters it.”
Substance Is Key
At Northern Michigan University, in the fall of 2021, Father Larson added a Mass on Thursday nights at 9:06 p.m., the timing coinciding with the area code of the Upper Peninsula, which is 906.
He used to hear confessions during Eucharistic adoration at 8 p.m. leading up to Mass, but demand was high enough that in August 2022 he added a second hour, so it now starts at 7.
The extra hour fills a need but also sends a message.
“As a priest, adding confession times kind of implicitly says, ‘This is important,’” Father Larson said.
It also helps when young people are delivering the message. Father Larson credits a surge in participation in campus ministry to the arrival in January 2021 of five missionaries in their 20s from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (known as FOCUS).
When he arrived in July 2020, the campus ministry at Northern Michigan had about 40 students, with about 20 of those active.
Last school year, 76 students were active in Bible studies. That’s more than 1% of the 7,000-strong student body.
“Having them on campus is a life-changer. Programs don’t evangelize, but people do. So when you have missionaries who start building relationships with students, and then you have students doing the same thing, you have a lot of people on campus saying, ‘I know Jesus, and I want my friends to know Jesus as well,’” Father Larson said. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
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