Quenching a Thirst

In this first in an occasional series on campus ministries that are producing vocations and conversions, the Register profiles the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

It’s Thirsty Thursday in Lincoln, Neb., and more than a few of the students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are feeling parched. Establishments throughout the city are greasing the skids with cheap booze.

“They’ll be out at the bars tonight,” said Father Robert Matya, chaplain of UNL’s Newman Center. “With that comes sexual promiscuity,” Father Matya said. “Stories of kids going to the ER and getting their stomach pumped.”

Many other UNL students, though, are thirsty for something else — the Catholic faith. Each Thursday night about 150 of them gather for Mass in the UNL Newman Center’s on-campus church, St. Thomas Aquinas. At 10:45, they’ll gather again for chow and chatter at Community Night — sans alcohol.

The Thursday evening Mass — one of two offered daily — is just one of the ways UNL’s Newman Center touches the lives of more than 2,500 students each year.

Yes, the challenge is daunting. Temptation abounds on and near college campuses. Yet that can open the door to conversion.

“There are lots of things that are trying to win their hearts and attention during the college years,” Father Matya said. “Part of the nature of college is that students are searching. They’re looking for answers, trying to figure out who they are. Religion is part of the way that happens. We’re with them at a great time in their lives.”

Nebraska has hosted UNL’s Newman Center since 1906. An estimated 6,000 UNL students, about 25% of total enrollment, are Catholic. The 47-year-old Father Matya has been chaplain since 1998, overseeing four full- and eight part-time staffers, 11 Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries and a budget of $1 million. About 85% of that comes from fundraising.

Father Matya is assisted by Father Ben Holdren. Experience has taught the two priests how best to ignite and deepen the faith life of students. First lesson?

“Gimmicks don’t work,” Father Matya said.

That’s echoed by Newman Center student board president Bryan Thiry.

“The majority of the campus-outreach programs that are geared towards students are very light on faith and theology and more just social groups,” said Thiry, a senior.

What does work, he and others say, are outreach and relationships.

“The approach that I have seen work best with students is meeting them where they are at,” Thiry said. “Many students want to feel like they fit in, so by first extending a friendship with students, they feel more comfortable to grow in their faith with that person.”

A striking example of outreach at UNL is the center’s annual Eucharistic procession each All Saints’ Day. More than 400 students accompany the Blessed Sacrament around campus, stopping at various temporary altars, including one in Memorial Stadium where the Cornhusker football team plays. Father Matya said it has prompted “three or four” students to convert. “Witnessing the procession has been the genesis of their conversion to Catholicism,” he said.

Focus also has been critical to outreach, Father Matya said. UNL was the third campus Focus partnered with upon its start 12 years ago (it now is on 50 campuses). Father Matya called it “a huge game-changer for us in terms of the effectiveness of how we reach students and the number of students who come and are active here.”

And there’s plenty to keep them active. Social functions include formal dinner dances, intramural athletics, a fraternity and sorority. Courses are offered on Scripture, morality and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Most popular, however, are weekly Bible studies attended by more than 500 students and facilitated by 80-plus Focus student leaders. The Bible studies, Father Matya said, are built on relationships: “When they’re involved, they tell their peers about it, and they come.”

The Newman Center also sponsors spring break mission trips. Students can serve the poor alongside the Missionaries of Charity and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. In February, students launched a St. Vincent de Paul Society to serve Lincoln’s poor. Retreats, marriage preparation, spiritual direction and vocation/religious discernment are offered, too.

One of the most successful offerings, said Father Matya, is exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. It was among the first things he instituted upon arriving in Lincoln. Initially it was offered for four hours each Monday. That has expanded to four hours every weekday. “It changes the lives of people who participate in it in terms of the way they reach out to others when they leave the chapel,” Father Matya said.

Need for Expansion

UNL’s Newman Center has been so successful that it now has a problem — a lack of space. The two daily Masses in the St. Thomas Aquinas chapel attract 300 students total. The four weekend Masses, though, have standing-room-only attendance — more than 1,200 students. To address that, the Newman Center has launched a $12-million campaign to tear down the 51-year-old existing facility and construct a new center (7,200 square feet) and a church that seats 640 Mass participants. Plans include 60-student Catholic fraternity and sorority houses. About $6 million has been raised.

Meanwhile, major renovations continue in students’ lives.

Thiry encountered the Newman Center during a time of need. He led an active faith life in high school, but once he got to college “fell into the major party scene.” A girlfriend and others, he said, led him away from Christ — “indeed, left me hurt and alone.”

A Focus student and staff at the Newman Center reached out to him, sparking a faith revival. He has since become president of the Newman Center, reflected seriously on his vocation, and currently is interviewing to become a Focus missionary.

Nearly 60 UNL students who have been active in the Newman Center have become Focus missionaries during Father Matya’s watch. Also during that time, 48 students have entered the seminary, and a dozen have become religious — Franciscans, Capuchins, Augustinians, Carmelites and others.

Father Matya also has seen more than 250 students convert to Catholicism, including a record 30 this coming Easter. Last year’s group of Easter converts included Robert Weir, a one-time Protestant who entered UNL agnostic with “strongly anti-Catholic” leanings.

“I thought that the Catholic Church was a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Weir said. “In fact, I adamantly argued against it whenever the chance presented itself.”

While visiting his sister, who was involved with Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, one Christmas Eve, however, Weir heard a homily delivered by Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh. It moved him so much that when he returned to campus he met with Father Matya to learn more about Catholicism. He began to participate in Newman Center activities.

“I quickly found that I had not only discovered a place to explore my intellectual curiosity in Catholicism, but a new family,” he said. “An intense love for Christ burns at the heart of the Newman Center, and it shows.”

He entered the Church in April 2010. He’s a daily communicant and remains active with the Newman Center. A 2009 UNL graduate, the 27-year-old from Bristol, Tenn., begins medical school this fall.

Quenching such thirst is “really wonderful priestly work to be able to do,” Father Matya said. “[It’s] a real blessing because you do see lives that are deeply impacted, not because of you, but you see God working in their lives.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing that actively happen. Peoples’ lives being changed, transformed.”

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.

INFORMATION Visit the UNL Newman Center online at HuskerCatholic.org

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.