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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Campus doorways to faith

Special Report Writer
Durham, N.C., and Ithaca, N.Y.

At North Carolina’s Duke University, a Catholic student came to the 9 p.m. Sunday Mass in the Duke chapel because at the same time her family would be worshiping at 6 p.m. in their parish in California.

Feeling “at home” in the ritual of the Eucharist can offer comfort and support during the often-difficult transition to the complexities of campus life, being away from family, friends and, for some, their homelands, according to Faithful Companions of Jesus Sr. Joanna Walsh, who has spent five years as a campus minister at Duke.

Walsh wants God to have “a place at the table of conversation” in the university. Campus ministers can “speak a word of faith in the midst of voices of doubt,” she said. “We bring the deep wisdom of our faith tradition.”

Being a woman who is neither ordained nor a professor frees her to work at the level of everyday experience, Walsh said. Much of her time is spent in pastoral counseling, spiritual direction and giving information or guidance both in person and via e-mail. Birthdays, an academic crisis, a death or illness in the family can be “important doorways” to pastoral care or education, said Walsh, who holds a master’s degree in theological studies from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

In addition to providing such pastoral care, campus ministers on non-Catholic campuses shoulder the responsibility of providing their students with the faith enrichment needed if they are to be among the church’s future lay leaders -- a necessity with vocations rare and, according to Ed Franchi, director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, based in Dayton, Ohio, 90 percent of Catholic students at non-Catholic colleges and universities. “This issue goes beyond pastoral care for students,” Franchi said.

Preparing future leaders requires larger, more specialized campus ministry staffs who can offer first-rate theology courses and spiritual training that will summon students to Christian maturity -- to a faith informing and guiding all aspects of their life.

Something valuable, relevant

“The larger challenge is to present religious faith as something valuable and relevant,” said Fr. Joseph Vetter, a priest of the Raleigh diocese who has served as a chaplain at Duke for two years.

Vetter estimates that campus ministry touches some 1,000 students. At least half of them attend the two Sunday Masses. Daily Masses are sparsely attended. He would like to hire more staff to do Catholic formation work, make contact with students living in dormitories and improve liturgical music.

The priest, who previously worked in youth ministry, parish and diocesan administration and was campus minister at Duke’s rival, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is convinced that Catholics should have their own space at Duke. Walsh, Vetter and ministers of some 20 other groups on the Religious Life staff share offices in the basement of the Duke chapel. Vetter is uncertain whether a worship place is needed or just a venue where people can gather and “feel at home.” But funding and space on campus have yet to be found.

Improving space is also an issue for the Cornell Catholic Community at the Ivy League university in upstate New York. According to campus ministry administrator Dawn Redlin, some 700 to 800 students attend the three Sunday liturgies held in an upstairs auditorium of the Anabel Taylor Hall. But the room is so unsuited to Catholic liturgy that many students attend Mass there once and never return, she said.

No sheltered life

Cornell’s nine-member Catholic campus ministry team shares space with 20 other religious groups in the crowded Anabel Taylor Hall. Besides mainline Protestant, Jewish and Islamic organizations, they rub elbows with and regularly meet Druids, Witches and Nature Worshippers -- all members of the United Pagan Ministry Conglomerate.

“Students can’t live a sheltered life in the world,” said Theresa Miller, one of two Catholic lay chaplains at Cornell. Miller said she is challenged by the presence of religions that are not monotheistic. Exposure to all types of persons and ideas provides ideal preparation for life in the professions and in the church, she said. Miller’s duties include coordinating liturgies and faith-sharing groups and directing hospitality and student retreats.

Miller and Sr. Donna Fannon also do outreach to Cornell students, especially those in residence halls. Fannon, a member of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, teaches Catholicism 101 for the community, coordinates the series for persons joining the church, lectures on Catholic women authors and shares the homily roster with the other chaplains. The courses and lectures are among several provided by the community, attended by nearly 200 students last academic year.

The two newly formed advisory and leadership councils for the Cornell Catholic Community are also looking into ways to ensure that Catholic studies remains in the Cornell curriculum. In 1999 Visiting Professor Donna McKenzie began teaching “Issues in Catholic Thought,” housed in the Near Eastern Studies department. McKenzie has also lectured to capacity classes in courses on Thomas Merton and on Catholic social action. But funding for her appointment ends next spring. The community hopes to find $200,000 to fund a Catholic Studies position from 2001-2004.

A campus ministry community can be viewed as a parish -- and Cornell Catholic Community is a parish with 1,000 to 1,500 members, demanding a larger staff and more funding than most campus ministry operations have, said Fr. Michael Mahler, director of the Cornell campus ministry team. “Nationwide campus ministry is severely understaffed and underfunded,” he said.

Invisible ministry

Campus ministry is “the invisible ministry of the local church,” Mahler said, adding that some of his fellow priests ask him, “When are you going to get a real job?” Mahler is also chaplain to the varsity football team and the Ithaca police.

Mahler prepares couples for marriage, lectures on human destiny after death and coordinates the annual service project to assist poor and elderly persons in Jackson County, Ky. Returning students report that the week-long manual labor and social outreach trip to Appalachia is the single most important event in their Cornell life. Many have entered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, become Maryknoll Missionary Associates or begun a career in ministry or medicine as a result of the experience.

Other students who have connected with the Cornell Catholic Community have recognized its importance in providing future church leaders. A recent community newsletter cited several priestly vocations among Cornell graduates and drew responses from some 20 priests and a half dozen religious who said their life choice was influenced by their days in the Cornell community. Campus ministry is “the primary seedbed” for religious vocations, Mahler said.

Karen Byrne Wang, a 1993 Cornell graduate, volunteered as a Sunday school teacher, catechumenate sponsor, lector and eucharistic minister while at Cornell. Today she serves the church as a lay volunteer in Ann Arbor, Mich. -- “thanks to the training received as a student at the [Cornell Catholic Community],” she said.

Spiritual formation groups

At Duke, Walsh has provided spiritual guidance for future leaders in ministry -- Catholic and non-Catholic students alike. Since 1998, first-year graduate students in the Duke Divinity School have been required to join a spiritual formation group. The majority of divinity students intend to work in ministry; many will go on to ordination. The groups of eight to 12 students, from almost as many denominations, are meant to provide a setting in which new students can integrate their learning with their own vocational journeys. Non-professors like Walsh have been asked to facilitate the groups. Together they share faith stories, discuss spiritual practices, pray aloud or sit silently.

“In this largely Protestant setting I have become aware of my innate Catholic sacramental world-view,” Walsh said. “I have been humbled and inspired by the Protestant reverence for the Word of God.”

Catholics are the largest religious group at Duke, comprising about 30 percent of undergraduate and graduate students. But Catholic students and faculty feel they are a minority at the historically Methodist-sponsored college, Vetter said. “The university is friendly to us, but we are clearly outsiders rather than insiders.”

Except when the Blue Devils play basketball, Duke does not come together as a community, Vetter said -- it is a collection of diverse groups. Yet people want to be part of a community, and campus ministry has a chance to provide that opportunity, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000