Canadian Student Missionaries Teach the Faith on Campus
Catholic Christian Outreach brings peers and parishes closer to Christ.
VICTORIA, British Columbia — For 25 years, Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), a university missionary apostolate inspired by evangelical Protestant groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ, and its missionaries, have been bringing to Canadian campuses — and parishes — Catholic truths about the sacraments and especially the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
The group’s message to university students is that life in Christ can bring great freedom, while the ostensibly liberated campus culture of unrestricted sex, drugs and alcohol is the way to slavery.
“In a world that is searching for something tangible to believe in,” said CCO missionary Mark Dumbrique, 20, “you can’t have a more physical encounter than you have by actually taking Jesus inside you in holy Communion.”
CCO was founded by Andre and Angele Regnier while they were students at the University of Saskatchewan in 1988, after they participated in a Campus Crusade for Christ event.
“They said to each other, ‘Why can’t we do this for Catholics?’” explained Father Dean Henderson, chaplain at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
After waiting years to get a CCO team to come to Canada’s westernmost province, a team is coming to his university this coming school year.
To kick off CCO’s debut in Victoria, CCO has chosen Canada’s westernmost capital city for “Summer Impact,” its annual summer-long evangelization effort, in parishes across the Diocese of Victoria through early August. More than 30 full-time and part-time CCO missionaries from 11 universities across the country, Dumbrique among them, have been conducting “Faith Study” events at local churches in Victoria.
In the summer, undergraduate-level missionaries hold down temporary jobs, often at parishes, during the day; in the evenings, they lead parish missions for all ages and weekly social events for senior high-schoolers and collegians, mixing entertainment, fast food, worship and serious faith talk.
Come fall, recent college graduates reach out to students on campuses.
“I am thrilled to have them in the fall,” said Father Henderson. “Most of the time, I am pretty much a one-man operation at UVic,” a school whose faculty and student government are notably hostile to religion.
Leading the summer mission is Nicole Germaine, a University of Saskatchewan graduate who keeps the books for CCO in Ottawa during the school year.
She explained that during the school year, on campuses across Canada, CCO missionaries take students through “Faith Study,” a five-lesson journey, with each lesson comprising five to seven study sessions that are intended to deepen the participants’ faith and bring them into a “personal relationship with Our Lord,” said Germaine. The phases are “Discovery” (basic Church teachings); “Source” (the Holy Spirit); “Growth” (prayer and the sacraments); “Obedience” (surrendering one’s life to Christ); and “Commission” (evangelization).
CCO is aimed first at lapsed and nominal Catholics. The missionaries grab attention in the not-so subtle methods pioneered by evangelical Protestant campus missionaries, often centered on junk food.
“Chips,” summed up Jeff Graham, CCO’s vice president. “Potato chips, taco chips, whatever.”
At the orientation events organized for freshmen orientation week each fall, CCO gives away junk food to compete with dozens of clubs seeking new members. In order to get some food, students must fill out a short questionnaire about Catholic teaching. The questionnaire ends with an invitation for students to learn more by writing down their contact information. About 1,000 students across Canada respond each year, and after missionaries contact them, they end up completing the CCO faith lessons; among those, most are Catholic.
Hungry for Deeper Meaning
A surprising number of them, said Graham, have life-changing religious experiences that center on Eucharistic adoration and the sacrament of reconciliation. “At a deep level,” he said, “they get the message: Here is God, and here is how you reconcile with him.”
University students are hungry for deeper meaning in their lives, both Graham and Germaine attest. CCO counts on that. “They don’t really know what their hunger is for,” says Graham, “and sometimes we have to overcome resistance, like the fear that we personally are religious nuts.”
Then comes the nuts and bolts of Catholic teaching, which, especially with regards to sexuality, is “shocking to many students,” said Graham.
Added Germaine, “We show there is real freedom — for example, from the expectations that they should sleep around or do drugs and alcohol, trying to fill their hearts in the wrong way, with the girlfriend, with the boyfriend.”
“What we are mostly about is turning lukewarm Catholics into Catholics that are on fire [for their faith],” said Dumbrique.
Students who like the “Faith Studies” sessions, which are conducted in small groups of three or four, and the crowd-pleasing entertainment and worship events are encouraged to bring their friends of other faiths as well as those with none to CCO events.
Overall, the process repels some and draws in others by confronting them with their own fallen natures.
“Many people are unwilling to admit their weakness, their vulnerability, their sinfulness, if you like. But weakness is really the way to Jesus,” Dumbrique added.
Dumbrique recalled encountering CCO and “Faith Studies” upon his own arrival as an undergraduate at Queens University in Kingston, Canada, two years ago. “It was really a blessing,” he said, “because it prepared me to face a university life, which really is about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” with a Christian outlook that counters that hedonistic lifestyle.
The best thing about CCO’s program, he said, “is how it taught me what it meant to be a Christian man: that it was manly to admit my weakness, to search for and submit to God’s will in my life, to look at women in a loving way, and do all that within a life of prayer and self-discipline.”
Lighting the Fire of Faith
Working alongside Dumbrique, in both their day jobs at one Victoria parish and CCO “Faith Studies” in the evenings this summer, is Katie Foster, 25, a University of Alberta education student who attended her first CCO event four years ago in Calgary. She says the key to the program is “the energy of real people who are on fire for the faith.”
That’s what Sherley Vo, a 23-year-old in her fifth year of bio-pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Ottawa, experienced.
Although she never stopped attending church, attending school away from her family of Vietnamese immigrants was a difficult change for her. At home in Brampton, Ontario, she had tried very hard to please her parents and church community. Then, at college, “my social life became a huge priority. All my friends were great partiers, and to please them, I partied, too.” She didn’t do drugs, but she drank with her friends and made some mistakes in relationships. “It was fun while I was doing it, but I would come home feeling empty,” she admitted.
Then a friend recommended CCO, and Vo’s life began to change — especially her viewpoint about God: “I had an idea that he really wasn’t paying that much attention to me. Now, I realized that he loved me and wanted a relationship with me. I realized with the life I was living … had to start changing.”
Later, another breakthrough moment for her came in the study lesson dealing with scriptural passages attesting to Jesus’ divinity. “I believed it before, because that was what they taught me,” she recalled. “Now, I realized what the basis for this was.” As the lessons deepened her understanding of the faith, the leaders encouraged her and fellow students to go to confession and Communion. She recalls confessing her bad study habits and carefree approach to life and relationships: “I remember the Father saying that Jesus wanted me to be the best student I could be.” After that, her work habits improved significantly. So did her attitude. As a friend told her, “You are happy all the time now.”
Vo has dropped her plans for medical school and now plans to be a CCO missionary after graduation.
“I was invited to put Christ at the center of my life, and for the first time ever, I said Yes to this invitation,” she explained. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what I really want, what I truly desire — to know Jesus.’”
Said Vo, “I could finally stop trying to get everyone’s approval and finally accept that it was how God saw me that really mattered — as his beloved daughter.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.