By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Father Chuck Adam and Father Jeffry Belger once experienced life as students of the universities they now serve: Fr. Adam at St. Ambrose University in Davenport and Fr. Belger at the University of Iowa’s Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City.
Through the years, the campus ministers have observed changes in students that require their programs to work harder than ever to engage students and guide them to an active life in the church. They’ve also seen how, despite differences between generations, some things never change.
With a new school year approaching, both priests offered their thoughts on how campus ministry has evolved.
Unique interests mean offering unique opportunities
Fr. Adam remembers a time when campus ministry was all about Mass. As a 1982 graduate of St. Ambrose College, and its chaplain since 2000, he said Mass is still the center of campus ministry. The goal of any ministry is to bring people to the Mass. However, engaging students in their spiritual life isn’t as simple as it used to be.
“There was a time when all you had to do was show up and offer liturgy. You dealt with the people who came to Mass. Now, (campus ministry) really means reaching out to people, reaching out to the unchurched.”
Fr. Adam said the student population is made up of increasingly diverse faith backgrounds. Not all students at the Catholic university grew up attending Mass every Sunday. Still others identify as Catholic but are not engaged. Some are searching for a faith to call their own. “You have to offer more things to make sure everybody has their particular spirituality fed,” Fr. Adam said.
In addition to Mass, eucharistic adoration and confession, St. Ambrose University offers retreats and community service opportunities. The university offers various styles of music in worship and unique prayer services such as Taize. Student organizations exist to focus on aspects of the Catholic faith such as social justice. A program called Brewed Awakenings allows students an opportunity to discuss and explore world and faith issues. For the first time this year, each residence hall will have a peer campus minister to serve as a listening ear and help nurture student faith.
Recent initiatives take advantage of the technology-filled world of its students; in addition to frequently updated Facebook and Twitter pages, all students receive a student ID holder that attaches to the back of their phone case. Mass times at the university’s Christ the King Chapel are printed on the holder as a constant reminder for students.
“We want to make sure students know that the church is a place they can always come back to and that it’s the center of their life, even in a busy world,” Fr. Adam said.
Engaging students will always take effort
When Fr. Belger started his freshman year at the University of Iowa in the mid 1980s, he was joined by several classmates from Notre Dame Catholic School-Burlington. Newman Catholic Student Center was still under construction then, and he opted to attend Mass at nearby St. Mary Catholic Church. But many other classmates chose not to.
“Maybe about two or three made Mass part of their normal routine,” he recalled. “The rest realized they didn’t have to go anymore because mom and dad didn’t make them. Maybe they went to Mass elsewhere, but freedom was the key our freshman year. It was a challenge to make that commitment.”
This freedom of choice still causes many cradle Catholics to allow their faith and church engagement to become less of a priority, he said. Students at the University of Iowa may also struggle with newfound doubts and questions that emerge in their interactions with professors and other students sharing opposing views. “If (Catholics students) don’t have someone to remind them that God loves them – always has and always will – we lose them,” Fr. Belger said.
Newman Center can help by serving as a welcoming place where students can form relationships and connect with each other and the Catholic faith. It starts with Lunch on the Corner the first week of class, and continues with student-led “Christian Communities,” which are small groups that discuss the upcoming Sunday Mass Scripture readings. Retreats occur throughout the year and, of course, there is Mass. Service opportunities are offered, as well.
All of these programs help to engage students and give them an opportunity to ask questions, share their life stories and build their faith. They just need that invitation, Fr. Belger said. “Relationship is essential.”