Newman Center Fuels Faith At Champaign-Urbana

Eve Christman walked into St. John's Chapel at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and was immediately drawn to the stained glass windows and the large crucifix. “Then I looked to one side and saw the statue of Mary,” the senior recalled. “She was beautiful, and I felt like I was home.”

A baptized Catholic who became a Methodist in high school, Christman will be received into the Church at this year's Easter Vigil Mass, along with 52 others.

The size of the Newman Foundation's Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program is testimony to the quality of the campus ministry program at the university, which is carried out in careful harmony with the teachings of the Holy See.

St. John's is considered a model of the Newman Center apostolate — the pastoral care of Catholics at non-Catholic colleges. It is a ministry often overshadowed by America's many Catholic institutions of higher learning. But the vast majority of American Catholic college students attend public, not Catholic, colleges, making the Newman apostolate fertile ground for the evangelization of the college-age population.

A joint 1994 document, The Presence of the Church in the University, was prepared by the Vatican's offices for Education, for Culture and for the Laity. The document urges the use of three ways of teaching — catechesis, personal guidance and friendship -— and a deepening of the spiritual life based on the Scripture, the sacraments and liturgical life.

All three aspects were present in Eve Christman's return to the Church.

She first attended Mass at St. John's on the invitation of her roommate and was prompted to return again and again by the sincerity of the Christian faith she saw among the students. In Father Tom Gibson and fellow student Sarah Meeks, the leaders of her RCIA team, she received personal guidance and orthodox instruction that has filled the gaps of her knowledge of the faith. A full sacramental life and participation in a retreat program have deepened her personal commitment to Christ and the Church.

“I didn't know what I was missing until it was re-explained to me,” said the biochemistry major, who will be confirmed at the Easter Vigil. Christman and her fellow catechumens form a group that consists in roughly equal parts of non-Catholic Christians, those who are unbaptized, and Catholics who have not been confirmed or who have left the Church for another denomination or religion and now wish to return.

The campus ministry is staffed by four full-time priests who, along with several lay assistants, serve an estimated 10,000 Catholics on the sprawling campus of almost 25,000 undergraduates.

In addition to three daily Masses, six Sunday Masses and daily confession, the staff is responsible for three residence halls, a modest curriculum of Catholic studies, an assortment of lecture programs and study series, and a highly successful retreat program.

A Convert's Enthusiasm

Father Stuart Swetland heads the Newman Foundation and St. John's Chapel. He graduated first in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy, received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, converted to Catholicism, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Peoria in 1991, and earned a doctorate in sacred theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.

Father Swetland acknowledges the challenging missionary aspect of his work. Today's Christian community must be counter-cultural, he said, and this begins with the university. “We really have to stand up for reason and the ability to know truth, much in the same way the Holy Father recently stated in [his 1998 encyclical] Fides et Ratio,” said Father Swetland.

And then there is joy. “The faith is joyful and it's really important to allow the ethos of the community to reflect Christian joy,” he added.


A sign of the vitality of the St. John's program can be found in the vocations it produces for the priesthood and religious life. “Vocations … tell you that the environment is conducive to hearing the call of the Holy Spirit,” said Father Swetland.

Luke Spannageo is one of four 1998 graduates to enter the seminary. For Luke, now in his first year of studies at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., it was the vibrancy of faith in the Catholic community on campus that helped to solidify his vocation.

Spannageo said there is something for everyone at the ministry, which “gives kids a really strong base to hang on to, especially when other aspects of the college experience run counter to your faith.”

Another aid to spiritual growth offered by the Newman Center is musical quality and diversity. St. John's sponsors six separate choirs, ranging from a traditional group to contemporary praise. Each of the groups is professionally directed.

Learning the content of faith holds central place in the Newman program, which offers elective courses within the university system. Classes cover social doctrine, Catholic identity and doctrine, and marriage.

Extracurricular activities focus on faith and learning through weekly Bible study groups, discussion groups and prayer groups.

Catholic Dormitories

Another unique facet of the Illinois campus ministry is its administration of three campus dormitories. The dorms are certified by the university but run as Catholic dorms with directors and resident assistants hired and supervised by the campus ministry. Male and female students live in separate wings, there is a curfew, and there are no visitations between the two wings after curfew.

Not surprisingly, some members of the larger university see the rules as archaic. An editorial in the campus newspaper opined that the rules “hardly recognize the maturity and independence of college students” and that “curfews limit the interaction among students.”

Those who choose to live in the dorms do so because they find it a “sane environment,” said Father Swetland, who has a waiting list for rooms. “The dorms are a great blessing to the apostolate.”

Mo Fung writes from Washington, D.C.