By Fr. Thom Hennen
It has been a while since I have written something for The Catholic Messenger. I have been plenty busy, between my continuing work as Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Davenport and now as Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry at St. Ambrose University.
Having just completed one semester at St. Ambrose and now a few weeks into the second semester, my first observation is just how fast things go at the university. I was told that second semester goes even faster than first semester, which seems unimaginable to me. First semester felt like two months, so what will second semester feel like? Of course, a semester is not really “half the year,” even though we often think of it that way, accustomed as we are to thinking in terms of an academic year. No, a semester is only 14 short weeks or three and a half months. No wonder it feels like I stepped into some experimental “hyperloop,” hurtling through a vacuum tube at 700 mph.
My other observation is that, despite the rapid pace of things, there is ample opportunity for meaningful connection with the students. I am amazed and edified by our students’ faith, at least those I have had the benefit of interacting with on a regular basis through campus ministry events. They are hardworking, zealous, pious (in the best sense of those words), humorous, warm, compassionate, curious and hungry — both literally and figuratively.
The “Millennial Generation” takes a lot of flak for being self-absorbed and materialistic, among other things. I’m sure cases exist in which the “shoe fits,” but from what I have observed, that is a gross overgeneralization. This is why our obsession with trying to put people into and understand differences in generations is always a little tricky. I myself am a late “Gen-Xer” (almost a “Millennial”), with “Greatest Generation” parents, and both “Baby Boomer” and “Generation X” siblings. (This, by the way, made for a very interesting and diverse music collection in our house — everything from Glenn Miller to Nirvana.)
Given all of those influences, what does that make me? In the end, people are people, and we’re probably more alike than we like to think at times. Beginning next fall, we will welcome the first members of “Generation Z” or the so-called “iGeneration” on campus. Will they be markedly different? Personally, I doubt it.
Of course, I realize that in college campus ministry we are really seeing “the best of the best.” College students are no longer “forced” to go to church. You know that if they are showing up, they really want to be there. I suppose it is a bit like having the best one or two young people from hundreds of parishes in the tri-state region over the last four years in a kind of “super youth group.” Of course, this also presents a challenge. Namely, how do we avoid simply “preaching to the choir” and reach out to those who are not already involved in some way with campus ministry? Also, as junior high and high school youth ministers know so well, these young people are busy. They are more involved and pulled in many more directions than I ever remember as a student “under the oaks” of Ambrose Hall.
Part of the reasoning behind this dual assignment as Vocation Director and Chaplain to St. Ambrose is that college campus ministry pairs very naturally with vocation work. My experience so far is that this is holding true. What better place to accompany these young adults as they are discovering with greater clarity who they are and discerning how best to use their gifts for the benefit of the world and the church?
More concretely, I am already working on a possibility for next fall through the university’s “themed housing” program to assemble a small group of young men who desire to live their Catholic faith more intentionally, pray together, help keep each other accountable, share meals and conversation, and find ways to serve others in the local community. These young men may or may not be thinking about priesthood, but all of these aspects certainly give them a taste of seminary life. Sneaky, huh? I am also thinking of something like this for our female students, with the hope that maybe a religious sister could oversee such a community.
All in all, I feel that it has been a successful start to this new ministry. There have been many joys, but also sorrows, including the sudden passing of one of our beloved theology professors before school started and two tragic student deaths at the end of first semester. In such moments, the need for pastoral presence and heartfelt spiritual care becomes even clearer. Still, there is much for which to be both grateful and hopeful as the year progresses … even as I hang on for dear life on this fast and wild ride.