Serra Reaches Out To College Students

The Serra Club sponsors the College Connection Program to help returning students link up with local parishes. By Barb Ernster. Book pick: Tina Dennelly recommends Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light

More than a million Catholic students graduate from high school each year. As they go through college, some will deepen their Catholic faith, others will stray from it. Unfortunately, some may not even be able to find it on their college campus.

The U.S. Council of Serra International wants to help change that.

Serra unveiled its new College Connection Program this spring. The program connects college-bound students with the Catholic presence on and off campus, particularly at non-Catholic public and private universities.

Ten dioceses have adopted the program after test sites around the country showed positive results. Local Serra clubs gathered more than 2,500 names of students from parishes and high schools and provided them to college campus ministers.

Serra’s goal is to triple the program next year through its network of 315 clubs nationwide, according to Gary Davis, past president of Serra USA. Davis helped develop the program with Serra’s chairman, Dick Stolly, and the vocation committee.

Stolly said the program has been well received by Catholic campus ministers at public colleges because they are blocked by privacy laws from obtaining the religious preference of incoming students.

“At big secular schools, a campus minister is looking to know even 20% of the Catholics who are coming there, and that’s a high number,” he said.

Serra reviewed a 2003 study on campus ministry compiled for the U.S. Catholic Bishops by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. It concluded that if participation in Catholic campus ministry increased by just 10%, there would be a noticeable increase in vocations, church attendance and parish leadership in future years.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., participated in meetings at the planning stages of the College Connection program as the Episcopal Moderator for Serra USA. He said while Serra is interested in youth, they are also concerned about vocations to the priesthood and vowed life, and the College Connection program increases the likelihood that vocations will be cultivated by connecting ministries offered with these young Catholics.

“There always has been outreach to college students, and Newman Centers are perhaps the best known and best developed college ministry programs,” he said. “Serra’s program aims at bridging the gap between the solid Catholic programs on college campuses and the students.

“It is an innovative approach to making sure that the resources of the Church and the programs we have developed reach our young people. I am very enthusiastic about it,” Bishop Capich said.

Catch ’em Early

The Catholic Student Association (CSA) at the University of Toledo, Ohio, one of Serra’s test sites, has seen an increase in new student participation and attendance at nearby Corpus Christi University Parish, which serves the campus. CSA contacted 250 Catholic high school students who will attend UT in the fall. The students received personal welcome letters from fellow students and Father Jim Bacik, pastor of Corpus Christi, as well as a packet of information about Catholic programs and Mass times.

“Names are like gold for us. We have many stories of students who received a letter and personal invitation who are coming here and finding us. Without the names, we can’t do it,” says Father Bacik, who has been in campus ministry for 37 years, 25 of which have been with Corpus Christi parish. He was the writer for the editorial committee which produced the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter for campus ministry, Empowered by the Spirit. 

Father Bacik said they make a massive effort in student outreach during the first few weeks because studies show that students will decide early on what organizations they want to be a part of and continue that involvement throughout their college years. Father Bacik estimates they reach about 2,500 students through ongoing outreach on the 20,000-student campus, 40% of whom are Catholic.

CSA President Brandon Aigner, 22, a senior at UT, became Catholic a few years ago, thanks to CSA students and Father Bacik. College was a time for him to decide what his own faith would be after having a “faith crisis” in high school, he said. Personal connection with students who were practicing their faith made a huge difference.

“I looked into different organizations and started meeting people from CSA, and they were very welcoming and willing to discuss things and listen to me,” he noted. “I talked to Father (Bacik), who sent me home with two feet of material — a Bible, Catechism, a set of tapes. I devoured it all and entered the RCIA program.”

Catholic Identity

Aigner sees a broad range of faith involvement among the students. Some are not really interested, but come to Mass because it’s “routine.” But they are searching.

“There’s a great quote, ‘College is about finding yourself, the degree is a byproduct.’ I see that as truth,” says Aigner. “College is a crossroads for students. I don’t see it as a time when students are walking away [from faith], but a time to have a more mature understanding of it and to make it their own. We give them an opportunity to look at their faith in an adult way and show them that their faith is something they want to do.”

Father Bacik said polls show that young people have a great interest in spirituality but a loose connection with the institutional Church, and it’s a difficult task to put those together.

“We work constantly to keep a close connection between religion and spirituality and form a stronger loyalty to the Catholic Church,” he said. “It’s very important that campus ministries around the country re-establish a strong sense of Catholic identity that includes the Catholic heritage, our tradition on natural law, Catholic social teaching and the great Catholic sacramental life.”

Stolly said parents or students who want Catholic information about their college or university, can contact him at (419) 227-8019 or [email protected].

Barb Ernster writes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.