Accompanying students in their walk with Christ is the heart of college campus ministry

October 27, 2020

St. Mary's Chapel and Rice Catholic Student Center students and staff held a surprise birthday Zoom party for their chaplain, Father Ray Cook, OMI. (Photo courtesy of Rice Catholic Student Center)

HOUSTON — Whether it’s the effects of the COVID-19, racial division, natural disasters, or other causes of uncertainty that can bring about hopelessness, accompanying young adults in their walk with Christ and sharing the Gospel message remain at the heart of Catholic Campus Ministry Centers.

“Most of the students we encounter want to know where God is during times of pandemic, racism and all of the natural disasters,” said Doris Barrow, campus minister at Texas Southern University Catholic Newman Center. “I cannot think of anything more necessary during this time than to focus on the mental health of students at TSU dealing with the effects of Covid-19 and the trauma of racism. As a campus minister, it is important because the trauma of racism and the current pandemic may come across as hopeless crises, but the ministry at the TSU Newman Center, echoing the Gospel to others, exists as a source of accompaniment for students.”

TSU’s Catholic Newman Center is one of five Catholic Campus Ministry centers that are part of the Young Adult and Campus Ministry (YACM). College students of all faith affiliations are invited to participate in Mass, Sacraments and catechesis, and become a part of a vibrant faith community at Galveston Newman Center, Rice University, Sam Houston State University (SHSU), TSU Catholic Campus Ministry and University of Houston (UH) Main Campus Catholic Campus Ministry.

Joe Magee, campus minister at SHSU, agrees keeping college students connected to their faith in Christ, to the Church and to the local faith community is more important now than ever.

“Since much of their college experience has gone online, it is easy for them to let their faith life drift away,” Magee said. “This is especially important since young people in this age group are already more likely to fall away from the faith. Newman Centers are vital to keeping young Catholics as a part of the Church and focusing their energy and enthusiasm into the mission of the Church to evangelize, especially people already in their lives.”

Father Ray Cook, OMI, chaplain of Rice University’s campus ministry, said the biggest challenge his center has faced this year is not having a “full, flesh and blood community to interact with on a regular basis.”

“The main focus is still preaching the Gospel on campus and the formation of young adults in the Church so they can be parish leaders, which has not changed,” Father Cook said. “The only change is the opportunities for folks who might not show up in person to show up virtually. It’s a great tool for the seekers in our world.”

Father Cook said while operations at the center are on a smaller scale because of social distancing, students and staff understand the impact of being faithful leaders by taking the mission seriously and giving witness by any means necessary. This is why he feels peer-to-peer ministry is the most impactful method to reaching young adults, which is why forming college students into leaders is important and the heart of the mission of all Catholic campus ministry centers.

Efforts teach students to pray, but also to lead prayers, retreats, service projects, lector training, Scripture studies, are all primary, he said.

“Letting them make mistakes and to not be judged for the mistakes, but rather, taking the opportunity to learn. There is no other place or time in life where young people are ‘allowed to fail’ and not have it be graded or looked upon as a negative on the job.”

Paul Oliver, who graduated from SHSU, was active in its Catholic campus ministry center for most of his time while in college, and he moved into several leadership roles, including student president.

“The Newman Center provided a wholesome, safe and faithful environment in which to learn and grow, and allowed me to connect with other like-minded individuals, learn from peers and elders, and share my faith with others,” said Oliver. “It provided service opportunities, as well as time for prayer, Mass, retreats, a community to be a part of. It’s also where I met my wife!”

Oliver said the center is a focal point for using the creativity and charisms of its members, allowing them to share their gifts with others. He said, except for Mass and theology night, every event was led by students for students.

Another student that benefited from a Catholic campus ministry center was Matt Gorman, who graduated from UH. He said when he left for college as a freshman, he was worried about the negative influences and temptations that he would face over the next few years. He believes active participation in events at the center kept him grounded in college and reminded him of what was most important in life.

“I quickly realized that I could find trustworthy, good people at the Newman Center, people who would bring out the best in me, but still knew how to laugh and have fun,” said Gorman. “With its lively and enriching community, it was a blessing to be a part of it and to help it grow over the last four years. The Newman Center was my refuge; I would often go after my classes to sit and relax, chat with friends and meet new ones.”

John Rizzio, a current student at UH, also had a life-changing experience through his involvement at the center. After attending Mass and a community night at the Newman Center, he felt transported back to his childhood, where he had a close-knit faith community at his Church — one that he thought was lost forever due to life’s circumstances since that time.

“I met young men and women persevering joyfully in faith while sharing their struggles with each other,” said Rizzio. He also saw priests, religious and laity living out their vocation with passion and devotion, he said.

“I saw communion in community. It was Jesus, present through, with, and in them,” he said. “I had a burning desire to be like them, and felt God was slowly returning to my soul the graces I had forgotten.”

The five Catholic campus ministry centers that are a part of YACM are supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF). According to Angie Pometto, associate director of YACM, the support of the faithful is critical to their impact on college campuses in the Archdiocese.

“There is so much good being done in the world of youth ministry in this Archdiocese and around the nation. However, many young people still stop practicing their faith when they transition into college,” said Pometto. “Campus ministry is meant to be a place to welcome students in that time of transition and help them stay connected to Christ and his Church throughout their college experience.”

Pometto said, while one college campus may have a student population anywhere from 7,000 (Rice) to 40,000 (UH), all campus ministry programs work to share Christ’s message of love and hope with all the students on their campuses, whether Catholic or not. She said the support of DSF helps ensure that they can continue to support this work through staff, programming, maintaining campus ministry facilities on campus and other resources.

As campus ministers, both Magee and Barrow agree that the DSF directly supports campus ministry’s success in providing for the facilities and staff who deliver the programs and events, which help build up the Catholic community on campus.

“Without the support from DSF, the professional staff of the Newman Centers would not have the resources or supplies for our many programs, nor would we be able to offer our personal presence to lead and guide Catholic students on campus,” said Magee.

Barrow believes the DSF is critical to the survival of all 60 ministries that benefit, especially the Catholic campus ministry centers.

“The entire operational budget for the Newman Center at TSU is funded by the DSF,” he said.

As a student who directly benefited, Gorman said he may not have made it through college without the community at UH’s Catholic campus ministry and Mass and Sacraments offered. He said his two younger sisters are currently members, and both are very active and love the community as much as he did.

“The Newman Center enabled me to deepen and enrich my faith during my time in college, which is when so many Catholics struggle with their faith,” said Gorman. “I would want all future Cougars to be blessed by the Newman Center in the same ways I have been blessed. My fondest memories from UH are all tied to the Newman Center, and I have a hunch that the same will hold true for my sisters.”