Saying 'Howdy' to the Faith

iPods and texting seem to be taking away the small-town feel at Texas A But the Catholic campus ministry is injecting a much-needed sense of community.

Even with 46,000 students on campus, Texas A&M has always had a small-town feel.

“It’s a very open and friendly campus,” said Father David Konderla, who grew up in nearby Bryan, Texas, and whose ties to the university date to a part-time job there in high school.

Yet a long-standing and official Aggie tradition — greeting everyone with a “Howdy!” — seems to be dying a slow death.

Students “all have iPod buds in their ears and they’re all texting away as they walk across campus,” Father Konderla said. “People don’t see each other.”

But while one tradition fades, another is thriving down in College Station: Catholicism. That’s mostly due to the efforts of A&M’s St. Mary’s Catholic Center, which Father Konderla directs. Well known in Catholic campus-ministry circles, it’s now drawing attention outside Texas and among laypeople. Most recently, George Weigel sang its praises in his nationally syndicated column.

“Texas A&M is a special place, culturally; in many respects, it seems to have skipped the ’60s, such that its 21st-century life is in palpable continuity with its past,” Weigel wrote in February. “That’s a deeply Catholic cultural instinct, which St. Mary’s has seized to build a program that is a model for the entire country.”

The program ministers to about 15,000 students. Father Konderla oversees a staff of 30, a $2.1 million budget and a 30,000-square-foot campus center that opened in 1998 and includes a 5,000-volume library and 850-seat church.

Big numbers, but they all start with the One.

“The most important aspect of the center, of the whole thing, is bringing these students face-to-face, if you will, with Jesus,” Father Konderla said. “Putting them into a real, integrated, intimate and personal relationship with Jesus, the very center of everything that is: the center of history; the center of every subject they study on campus.”

No wonder how he identifies the center’s most important programs.

“Mass and the sacraments,” Father Konderla said. “Apart from that, everything else we do coming out of the Mass is getting ready to go back into it.”

There are 14 Masses offered weekly at A&M. Weekend Masses attract 4,000 to 5,000 students. Confession is offered six days a week and also draws lines of penitents.

“The students have a hunger for and a love of the teachings of the Church,” said Douglas Jeffers, a 2010 graduate from Sugar Land, Texas. “All of the various activities — educational programs, service programs, evangelization, etc. — are thus able to be sustained by the grace flowing from the sacraments and are able to refer the students back to the worship of God in the Holy Sacrifice.”

‘High-Energy Encounter’

The most popular program outside Mass is Aggie Awakening, a student-led retreat program held for 100 students three times a year.

“A very high-energy encounter with Christ through their peers” is how Father Konderla describes it. There’s a waiting list of more than 400 students to attend. Six slots are reserved for students from other schools who want to model their retreat program after Awakening.

Father Brian McMaster, a 1995 Aggie grad and now vocations director for the Diocese of Austin, Texas, attended an Awakening as a freshman, then helped staff 10 more.

“It has three main impacts,” Father McMaster said. “One is that it’s a solid expression of the Catholic faith. Secondly, it’s done in a dynamic way, and it’s led by the college students. They are witnessing to the faith themselves. Thirdly, it’s a great introduction into a spirituality of communion, of really receiving charity and love from your fellow students. It’s a way of being drawn into the larger community of the student center.”

Awakening is one of seven retreat programs. There are retreats for incoming freshmen or transfers, for women and a “Busy Student Retreat.” St. Mary’s students each semester also host up to six retreats for confirmation and/or junior-high/high-school students within a 100-mile radius of campus.

“Ask a Catholic a Question” is another popular program. Students are positioned on campus in booths or standing at busy locales while wearing bright-colored shirts that say: “Ask a Catholic a Question.”

“Even when a student’s question cannot be fully answered right away, promoting positive discussion about our faith is a great way to correct false pretenses and fallacies about the teachings of the Church,” said Suzanne Simpson, a senior biology major from Kingwood, Texas.

Conversions and Vocations

St. Mary’s offers numerous other faith-based programs and activities. A sorority, Kappa Theta Beta, has about 90 members. Knights of Columbus Council No. 10624 is in its 20th year on campus and has won several awards for its work. There are groups for weekly Bible study, apologetics, praise and worship, community prayer and devotion, and a weekly Rosary. There are programs for young professionals and graduate students and for A&M faculty and staff. Students can join a social-justice committee, pro-life group or jail ministry. There are opportunities to serve Lenten soup kitchens, attend domestic and international service and mission trips or receive spiritual direction or help with vocational discernment. There’s a Catholic radio station and an institute for non-credit theological studies. And more.

Programs are frequently evaluated and new ones occasionally added. A recent addition, “Revolution,” introduces students to Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Small study groups form after introductory presentations.

“The students at St. Mary’s really walk the walk,” Simpson said. “They practice their faith by living it and leading by example.”

That example bears fruit through a striking number of conversions and religious vocations. Father Konderla said an average of 60 converts enter the Church through St. Mary’s, up to a dozen via baptism and the rest from non-Catholic Christian denominations.

Jeffers, a former Church of Christ member, had begun moving toward conversion prior to his involvement with St. Mary’s. His experience in the ministry and its RCIA program sped along his entrance into the Church at the 2007 Easter vigil.

“St. Mary’s was the place where I was first exposed to its being lived out,” Jeffers said. “The faith was very vibrant there, and I was drawn into a deeper relationship with Christ and with his holy Church through my time at St. Mary’s.”

He’s also among the many A&M students to enter or progress toward religious life. He’s a first year pre-theology student at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas, studying to become a priest for the Diocese of Austin.

Father McMaster, another vocation fostered through St. Mary’s, calls the Catholic campus-ministry program a “powerhouse to our vocations.” According to Father Konderla, St. Mary’s has about eight students enter formation for the priesthood or religious life each year. More than 130 have been ordained or professed final vows in the past two decades.

How’s it all managed? The “Howdy Culture” might be specific to Texas A&M, but Father Konderla says a vibrant Catholic campus ministry can happen anywhere.

“There’s not some magic here that makes this the only place this can be done,” Father Konderla said. “It is being done in a number of other places around the country, and it is terribly important that all of us do it and do it well, because we have 90% of our Catholic students at secular schools like A&M.

“It’s too important to the mission of the Church in the United States not to do this well.”

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.

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