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Catholic Colleges and Universities

A time of prayer and questions on campus


As all U.S. citizens struggled to shake off the shock and sorrow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, campus ministers at U.S. Catholic colleges and universities scrambled to provide spiritual triage and emotional support for young hearts and minds in their care.

At this early stage, there are lots of questions and few answers. Campus ministers say it’s too soon to tell what impact the recent tragedy will have on Catholic college students. Ministers generally observe the students turning first to prayer and introspection, then to analysis and social action.

Spot checks by NCR at Catholic campuses around the country indicate that Catholic college students may be better equipped to handle the present crisis than their peers at secular colleges or even their baby boomer parents. Although sometimes portrayed as pampered, materialistic and naïve, Catholic members of Generation Y appear to have more spiritual and moral resources than previously imagined.

These young people learned in high school how to huddle under desks in “lockdown” drills. They’ve lived with invasive security procedures and the threat of “zero tolerance” suspensions for carrying everyday items like fingernail clippers. The director of campus ministry at DePaul University in Chicago, Robert Ludwig noted, “It is a difficult time for them, a sobering time, but in another way they’ve been facing this kind of thing more than maybe the adult community has, with the level of violent activity that has gone on in their peer groups.”

Teach-ins and discussion groups have been packed at campuses around the country. According to Fernando Moreno, director of campus ministry at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, “The students’ response first is faith, then analysis.”

Catholic college students are better able to deal with the question, “Who did this, and why do they hate us so much?” Many Catholic universities and colleges require global studies and support a social justice curriculum. For example, Notre Dame sends about 30 percent of its students overseas in the course of their studies, so many of them have international travel experience.

“Somber” is the word most often used to describe the mood on campus in the past few days. Michael McIntyre, director of campus ministry at the University of San Diego, said, “They’re going about life, but it’s definitely a distracted life. There’s not much laughter and fun conversation around the campus.”

Jesuit Fr. Bill Watson, vice president for mission at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., said, “I think there is a tremendous amount perking underneath the surface.” He said, “What I sense more than anything else is a quiet reserve and a deep reflection.”

Many Catholic college students appear to understand the complexities of a Palestinian homeland, the effects of sanctions on Iraq, and other military and economic issues. Christopher Deal, 18, a government major at Georgetown in Washington said, “A lot of this is based in the callousness of our actions abroad.” He cited weapons sales to certain countries and the embargo against Iraq.

Boston College peer minister, Jim Spillman, who is working on his master’s in pastoral ministry, said, “I think we should all look at ourselves as individuals and ask ourselves, ‘What is it about our country, what is it about my role in this country that made these people so angry at us and filled with so much hate toward us?’ ”

These students have the intellectual equipment to understand many of the underlying reasons for the attack. However, they still fear the future. Fr. Richard Warner, director of campus ministry at Notre Dame in Indiana, said his goal has been to help students deal with the unknown. He said this attack has been a “terrific interruption in the normal train of events. There’s an underlying suspicion on the part of a lot of people that our way of life is going to change and we don’t know exactly what dimensions it will take.”

Boston College’s Anne McGinness, a 20-year-old theology major, said, “For our generation, especially, this is the first time we’re actually writing the history, not reading it.”

Claudia Sanchez, a 19-year-old sophomore at Loyola Marymount, said she felt strange going to classes Sept. 11. “It seemed really insignificant given what was happening,” she said. Yet, she also felt a sense of duty to move forward. She said, “You have to mourn for everybody. You reprioritize, but you have to keep on going.”

Most students are feeling a desire to reach out to family and friends. Sanchez said, “You do want to call your parents at home and tell them that you love them.”

Daniel Ponsetto, director of ministry for Boston College, described being swamped with e-mails forwarded to him by students with messages about valuing life, living for today and openly expressing love. He said, “One student sent a personal note to everyone on her list telling them how much they meant to her.”

Ponsetto said, “They are stepping back and reevaluating what is important and it has led to a greater appreciation of their lives, health and families.”

Not surprisingly, television played a major role in students’ lives during this crisis. Denise Phillips, director of campus ministry at the University of Dallas, a small liberal arts campus in Irving, Texas, said that on the day of the attacks campus ministers sat with students while they watched the news. They provided food and comfort, listened and handed out tissues.

Loyola Marymount’s Moreno found that students of his campus required special care. Because a large number of people from Los Angeles were in the doomed planes, the campus had many persons who were related to or friends of victims. “Television creates a kind of distance, but I’ll tell you when we started to get names of family members and friends, that’s when the shock really hit,” Moreno said. “That’s when it came home for all of us.”

Warner said nothing in the students’ pasts had prepared them for “that constant repetition of violent scenes that people were looking at on Tuesday.” Notre Dame’s campus ministry department scheduled a community-wide prayer service outside at 3 p.m. to pull the students away from the televisions and “to put that whole visual experience all of us had had into a different perspective of faith and prayer.”

Across the country, campus ministers report overwhelming attendance at all prayer services offered. The University of Dallas’ Phillips said, “This is pretty much a praying campus,” so for most of her students the liturgy was “their first source of comfort.”

Warner said the outside Mass at Notre Dame had about 10,000 people in attendance.

Ponsetto of Boston College said the liturgy has also become a teaching tool. “In our services we have to be very deliberate and very careful to make sure that the message we’re sending includes prayers for our enemies, prayers for those who consider us their enemies, and for courage, for greater understanding, for self reflection, for peace.”

The attacks have led to spiritual questioning among students. Ludwig said many students see this as an opportunity for self-examination, not a time for pointing fingers at others. “Students are really beginning to think more deeply about life, and what they’re here for, and what kind of world they want to create,” he said.

Gonzaga’s Watson noted that his campus immediately offered psychological counseling to the students, but relatively few used it. However, Watson said, “There were huge, huge numbers of participants at all the religious services.” He said, “It really is a spiritual issue, both in terms of grief and suffering and then, from a faith perspective, how to turn the desire for revenge into something akin to gospel justice.”

Georgetown’s Deal said he prays, “that we do what we can to seek out peace and justice as our true objectives, that whatever path we embark upon doesn’t kill more innocent people and doesn’t make us a nation of murderers.”

Phillips at the University of Dallas said, “They’re nervous about the prospects of war. They weren’t raised like I was. I ate dinner and listened to the body counts from the Vietnam War. They don’t have a clear picture of what war means.”

Loyola Marymount’s Sanchez said she’s praying “that violence would be the last resort.” She said, “There’s a fear that we all have now that this is just the beginning of a long journey.”

Deal hears the president’s talk of war and wonders who the enemy is. “Who do you declare war on when you declare a war on terrorism? It doesn’t mean anything at this point. We’ve had a war on poverty, a war on drugs -- the word is thrown out so liberally I don’t know what it means anymore.”

Even Catholic campuses are not immune to saber-rattling and talk of retribution. Most campus ministers and students estimated a 50/50 split between those who think war is the best option and those who favor a different response. Phillips at the University of Dallas said, “I think I’m seeing more nationalism now. Here the notion of defending God and country was not far behind when the shock wore off.”

Phillips noted, however, that many students are channeling their energies into the local community. She said participation in community service gives students a chance to say, “You can destroy something, but we’re still about building something.”

Other campus ministers echo that sentiment. DePaul’s Ludwig said, “I’ve seen more of a ‘can do’ activist spirit than I can remember in a long time.” He said, “They’re really quite amazing. Sometimes I wish they were in charge right now.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer with an advanced degree in religious studies.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001