Students Committed to Christ in the Capital of the World

At a place like Columbia University, highly secular and competitive, Catholic campus ministry plays a vital role.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Greg Bramble began to drift from his Catholic faith around the age of 12, about the time his family stopped attending Mass.

When he arrived at Columbia University in New York, he found many opportunities and made many friends, but was unhappy and unfulfilled.

One of the many top-tier scholastics among the 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students, Bramble, 23, is looking to add a Bachelor of Arts degree in math to his Bachelor of Science in computer science.

Eventually, at the beginning of his junior year, he began attending an on-campus Mass and, soon after, inquired about attending Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes to make his confirmation. The preaching from the Dominicans, who are the chaplains for the campus ministry, got his attention. The priests were available to answer his questions about the faith, and opportunities of service, such as volunteering at a nearby Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen, allowed him to see it in action.

Now, as he wraps up his five years at Columbia, he’s an advocate of frequent confession and believes the friendships he has made with other students in the Catholic community “will last a very, very long time.” He said the chaplain is a “close friend of mine.”

At Columbia, a university that is considered highly secular, the Catholic ministry has a unique role.

Polish Shepherds

Dominicans from the Order of Preachers’ Polish Province have staffed the Church of Notre Dame in uptown Manhattan since 1988. Included in the parish mission is the Catholic Campus Ministry at nearby Columbia. Dominican Father Jacek Kopera’s English was sharp enough for his superiors to ship him from Krakow to New York in 2006.

Technically, Catholic Campus Ministry is independent from the recognized campus club, but they operate together, along with an outreach to graduate students. Columbia students can attend Mass on campus and other liturgies at the nearby church.

On his first day, Father Kopera was given a tour of the area, and on his second day, he was put to work, including celebrating Mass. To boost his English, he engaged in many conversations with students, a trait that appears to be a hallmark of the youthful-looking 39-year-old priest.

Father Kopera understands the academic culture at Columbia. “‘B’ for many students is a disaster,” he said. He also noted the parental pressure on students. “Parents project on them everything they did not manage to succeed themselves,” the priest said.

Alyssa DeSocio, 22, a senior, is president of Columbia Catholic Undergrads, the university-recognized student Catholic organization. DeSocio described the move to this über-talented environment as humbling for anyone. “Many of us were kind of big fish in a small pond,” she said. “We were good students in high school and maybe, you know, some of the top students in our class; and then you get to a place like Columbia, where it’s all the top students together.”

“Columbia undergrads are some of the brightest and most competent in the country,” said Pete Cerneka, Columbia’s assistant director of student development and activities. “They have a drive to succeed, to learn, to help society (and themselves) that I did not have at that age.”

And that leads to competitiveness. “In some ways, Columbia students are their own worst enemies, fighting themselves with their own development as persons,” he said.

Given the competitive nature at Columbia, Father Kopera wants to give students the opportunity to experience spiritual growth by acknowledging weakness and then “open up yourself for God’s graces.”

“If you consider yourself to be perfect, then there is no need for conversion,” said Father Kopera.

Bread-and-butter strategies of the chaplain include being widely available for conversation, along with engaging homilies at daily and Sunday Mass. He’s also there to guide student initiatives, such as a Saturday night vigil. Father Kopera likes to offer encouragement for students to live “in the perspective of faith” and to be apostles to other students.

And if they stumble? To him, that’s probably a well-learned lesson and an opportunity for growth.

“I’m just trying to show them true, radical ways to take care of their faith,” Father Kopera said.

Secular Culture

When DeSocio was a freshman, she found out about the Catholic ministry during orientation week.

After her sophomore year, she spent a summer working at Maggie’s Place, a home for mothers in crisis pregnancies in Phoenix. There, she met other female college students and recent graduates; she admitted being jealous of the Catholic environments at Notre Dame and the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio). To her surprise, however, they were impressed with her faith life on a secular campus, which was in contrast to the “supportive bubble” found on some Catholic campuses.

“It’s just that the culture is not Catholic, and, at many times, not even Christian or even particularly warm or friendly to religion,” said DeSocio in regards to the Columbia campus environment.

She also spoke of the need to welcome Catholic freshmen and teach them about the faith, “especially in the midst of an environment that is supporting a lot of other ideals, a lot of other philosophies, a lot of other religions.”

Aiding in the awareness of Catholic intellectual thought, each fall, Catholic Campus Ministry sponsors a major talk by a prominent Catholic. This year’s speaker is Robert Louis Wilken, a historian from the University of Virginia.

But DeSocio also believes an “instrumental” part of the ministry is a weekly Holy Hour for students. “I mean, there’s nothing more powerful or more beautiful than meeting Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.

Graduate Student Outreach

Joelle Brichard Elliott, 26, is in her fourth year of a five-year doctoral program in math. She leads the graduate branch of Catholic Campus Ministry. Originally from Belgium but raised in Quebec, she is also a new mother.

“So, one of the biggest challenges we encounter is reaching out to grad students and breaking these barriers of independent work and research that is very characteristic to grad school and get people to want to come out of there and get involved with something else,” Elliott said.

To help with this, the graduate students have Dominican Father Marek Pienkowski as their chaplain. He spoke personally to and spent time with Pope John Paul II, beginning when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the archbishop of Krakow.

The grandfatherly priest has three initiatives he wants to continue developing. First is a group for medical students that examines Christian anthropology, the underlying meaning of being human, and medical ethics. The second is participation with a group called the Catholic Bohemians that meets at St. Malachy’s Church, also known as The Actors’ Chapel, near Times Square. Finally, he wishes to develop Christian and Jewish dialogue; he believes Columbia is an appropriate place to do so because of its significant Jewish population.

Like all ministries, there is always room for improvement. Finding the balance of sacramental needs, interaction with other student groups, intellectual development, and social engagement is a challenge.

And it seems that Catholic Campus Ministry might benefit from extended efforts to personally invite nominal Catholics to its events. Cerneka, who is Catholic but not actively involved with the ministry, expressed his disappointment that he does not see the group “out front in any kind of united way concerning social justice issues. And I don’t see any open dialogue about the future or health of our Church.”

And, like all student ministries, it’s dependent on students whose status changes yearly.

As for DeSocio, she plans to attend the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the fall. She looks forward to helping out with Catholic ministry there, especially regarding medical ethics.

Greg Bramble is confident about his future, given the spiritual and academic foundation he received at Columbia.

And for Father Kopera? He does not have plans to be anywhere else for a while. He finds his chaplaincy at Columbia “extremely fulfilling” and is “super happy about it.”

Justin Bell writes from Boston.