Into the Lion’s Den

A look at effective and faith-filled Catholic ministry programs on secular campuses.

Msgr. Gregory Ketcham thought he was being thrown into the lion’s den when he was assigned to head Catholic campus ministry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I really was thinking how difficult it would be to spread the Gospel on a secular campus,” said Msgr. Ketcham, who had worked in parishes for 12 years. “I thought it would be so much easier on a Catholic campus.”

It has turned out to be a great place to minister.

“On a Catholic campus you can kind of remain on the sidelines and kind of be neutral,” Msgr. Ketcham said. “The secular university has been an aid in making students confront their faith and what they believe and what they don’t believe. They experience things that are anti-Catholic … and they come back often very shaken.

“It’s a grace for us to be able to explain the truth and explain how to defend themselves when they go back into the classes.”

Msgr. Ketcham’s experience is not unique. Other priests running Catholic campus ministry programs are finding that secular universities may be lion’s dens, but they’re also where the Church can find the lion’s share of vocations.

“This is where the future of vocations are coming from,” said Father Steve Beseau, director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas.

Since the mid-1990s, he says, almost a third of the native clergy in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., have come from St. Lawrence.

Catholic campus ministry leaders also are discovering that secular campuses are fruitful orchards of reversion and conversion.

“I would say in some ways this still continues to be the best-kept secret in the Church,” Father Beseau said. “The future of Catholicism is passing through Catholic campus centers at secular universities. Eighty-five percent of Catholics attend a secular university. Priests, educators, Catholics in the pews are coming through these places. We have a great opportunity to really reach out to people.

“It’s almost the last time that people will be able to have the free time to learn their faith, to grow in their faith, almost until after their children are grown.”

A Century on Campus

Catholic ministry on secular campuses has long roots. The first Newman Center, a support organization for Catholic students, was established in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet secular campuses often were seen as something of a wasteland, said Msgr. Ketcham. When his predecessor started at the University of Illinois in 1943, “Catholic ministry at a secular university was something frowned upon by bishops.”

“The hope was that Catholic college students would go to Catholic colleges or universities,” he said. And those who did attend secular universities might have been met by “problem priests that got stuck in campus ministry,” Msgr. Ketcham said. “Campus ministry was a joke in the ’70s and ’80s.”

But, he adds, “It’s just the opposite now.”

The most noticeable change is that most Catholic students in college now attend secular universities — about 5 million of the 5.5 million total, said Msgr. Ketcham. Many of them have access to robust Catholic ministry programs that offer an array of programs, including daily Mass, retreats, catechesis, spiritual direction, lectures and mission trips.

St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus is recognized as perhaps the best Catholic campus ministry program in the country. It runs on a $4.5 million budget, funded mostly by income from housing for Catholic students (and others) in Newman Hall. St. John’s has offered housing for 81 years, recently increasing capacity to 600 students.

“They really become the dynamic leaders that become the fingers of campus ministry,” Msgr. Ketcham said of residents. “They bring in their friends, their classmates. It’s really a great process, a spiritual multiplication.”

And there’s plenty with which to multiply. There are 44,000 students at the Big Ten university, an estimated 25% of them Catholic. Of that 11,000, Msgr. Ketcham estimates they see about 5,500 at some time during the academic year and that about 6% are involved in some program.

More than 450 students, for instance, had their confessions heard outside on the university’s quad during Divine Mercy weekend. More than 1,700 students attended a lecture by an exorcist.

Last year, 32 students entered the Church. There were a combined 126 in the previous three years. Three students also entered the seminary last year — a calling 94 other young men at Illinois have answered in the last 14 years.

Red Letter Days

At the University of Kansas, 10 men have entered the seminary since Father Beseau came to campus three years ago. “We’re not even where we should be,” he said. “We should have six men entering each year. Maybe 10 if we’re doing this right.”

They’ve been at it since 1958, serving the few Catholics then attending Kansas. Twenty years later there were an estimated 3,000 Catholics attending Kansas, and St. Lawrence began expanding its offerings, adding a chapel in 1979 and a student center in 1986.

Today it serves 4,000 Catholics at the 21,000-student university with 45 programs emphasizing theological education and spiritual formation. About 1,200 students are involved in activities.

“Ideally they go to Mass every Sunday,” said Father Beseau, “but that has not been instilled in this generation. They like to go home on the weekend; that’s been a big change.”

The program has a $925,000 budget supported mostly by fundraising. Programming includes a “Genius of Women” show that counters the infamous “Vagina Monologues” by having students display their gifts and talents through art, dance, song or literature.

On Red Tuesdays, St. Lawrence students wear red T-shirts with “I’m a Catholic. Ask me a question” listed on the back.

It’s a successful tactic that Father Beseau said has helped clear misconceptions non-Christians have about Catholicism.

There has been an unexpected benefit, too.

“It really bolstered the confidence of students who are believers, especially Catholics,” said Father Beseau, himself a KU graduate who participated in St. Lawrence programs. “They know they’re not alone on a secular campus like the University of Kansas. It can be very frightening to be a person of faith in your classes. You often feel like you’re the only one there.”

Catholics at the 50,000-student University of Texas have had their own ministry since 1908, when construction of the 700-seat St. Austin’s Chapel, touted as the country’s first Catholic student facility, was built on the public campus. Seven years ago, a new chapel was added to cater to the university’s approximately 9,000 Catholic students.

This spring break its students will attend missions trips to New Orleans, Mexico and India, the last one a visit to orphanages organized by a UT alumna.

Competing With Culture

Often, though, the most important mission work takes place on campus.

University Catholic Center’s director, Paulist Father Ed Nowak, notes that more than ever before, competition for a student’s time is fierce. Faith competes with schoolwork, jobs and all sorts of electronic distractions. Worse, though, is a culture that glorifies alcohol abuse.

Msgr. Ketcham and Father Beseau also mentioned this challenge.

But Catholic campus ministry programs offer an alternative.

“Faith can make a difference in their life,” said Father Nowak. “Students that go through campus ministries, when they graduate, studies have shown that … wherever they go they are contributors to the Church.

“They’re the future of the Church. They’re owning their faith for the first time in their lives as adult Catholics,” he said. “It’s important to provide a place where they can grow in their faith and learn and ask questions and grow as adults, not just in their faith but also in leadership.”

Anthony Flott writes

from Papillion, Nebraska.

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