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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Campus ministry terminations draw fire

Rockville Center, N.Y.

New York’s Rockville Centre diocese plans to replace three long-serving campus ministers with fresh-from-college “peer ministers” in an initiative diocesan officials say will aggressively “bring the faith” to more than 50,000 Catholic college students at 10 secular Long Island campuses. The plan, two years in the making, has stirred anger among students who support the three women religious who are losing their jobs and concern from the sisters’ congregational leadership that their service to the diocese is undervalued.

According to the diocese, Dominican Srs. Kathleen Riordan and Elizabeth McGarvey, as well as Sister of St. Joseph Kathy Hickey, will be replaced by recent graduates of such schools as Washington’s Catholic University of America and the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Riordan serves at Hofstra University, McGarvey at Farmingdale State, and Hickey at the New York Institute of Technology.

Rockville Centre, like most dioceses in the country, is struggling to engage young adult Catholics, according to church officials. “Go to Mass on Sunday and see how many college age people are attending Mass,” said diocesan spokesperson Sean Dolan. “Young adults have been chronically underserved in the church and we need to reach out to them more effectively. We need to bring the faith to them.”

How the faith is delivered, of course, is a sticky question and the initiative, still in its infancy, is off to a slow and inglorious start.

“In the apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inuente,” Rockville Centre Bishop William Murphy said in a news release announcing the initiative, “the pope invites us, at the beginning of the new millennium, ‘to put out into the deep’ and renew our commitment to evangelize the world by the witness of our words and actions.”

Murphy tasked the director of campus ministry for the diocese, Fr. Brian Barr, to “look at campus ministry through the lens of the new evangelization”

While the diocese has asked the three terminated sisters to assist in the transition, they were not invited to the table at any point in the planning process, despite the fact that each of them had worked on a recently submitted study of the organizational structure of campus ministry. “The first I heard of the formalized plan was a press release from the diocese,” said McGarvey.

Sr. Margaret Macey, councilor for ministry for the local Dominicans, said that a lack of clear communication from the diocese until now does not bode well for the initiative’s future. “I am hard-pressed to understand the extent of Barr’s awareness [of campus ministry programs] if he hasn’t availed himself of the opportunity to speak to at least three of the people -- who happen to be women religious -- who do that work.

“We’re here serving the same church,” Macey said. “I think that it is beyond the obvious that the church is best served when all of us who are doing our best for the people of God sit down around the same table and talk.”

After much controversy, Murphy agreed to do just that. He sat down with representatives of each order just one hour before a long-scheduled April 13 demonstration in front of diocesan headquarters called by students from the three affected campuses.

Police estimated more than 125 participated -- including women religious and Catholic and non-Catholic students. Meanwhile, Murphy and the religious orders’ representatives agreed to continue a dialogue about the diocese’s campus ministry program.

The new Rockville Centre initiative is based on the concept of “peer ministry,” according to Barr. “There are some extremely exciting models of campus ministry throughout the country,” Barr said in the initiative’s news release, “where faith is on fire, where participation at Mass and in the sacramental life of the church is phenomenal.” He continued, “The purpose of the two-year study was to study our own program and determine how can we make it a world-class ministry.”

The theory, said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan, is “if they participate in the sacraments, if they participate in Mass, if they engage in discussions related to the Gospel and even participate in activities with other students at other campuses in the area, they will continue practicing their faith after graduation.”

The model imagined by Barr and the diocese, according to Dolan, would look something like this: At each of the 10 campuses, which together form a canonical entity within the diocese called the “campus parish,” the initial point of contact for students would be a peer minister. “The peer minister will work closely with the [priest] chaplain,” Dolan said, to “foster evangelization.”

The peer ministers, he said, will be “very mature young people who have had this sort of experience before and who can handle the issues that students will bring them.”

Why look to The Catholic University of America and the Franciscan University of Steubenville as a source of peer ministers? “These are schools,” Dolan said, “that demonstrate very robust and vibrant campus ministry programs and the goal would be to have peer ministers from one of those backgrounds who could bring those experiences to Long Island -- somebody who has had some experience at those best-practiced universities.”

Evangelization in state schools, of course, is a sensitive subject. When word of the firings made its way indirectly to administrators at the affected schools, the reaction was strong.

“The diocese has made it clear that its new goal is the evangelization of students,” Farmingdale State’s Office of Marketing and Communication said in a statement. “As a state agency, we cannot support evangelization on our campus. Therefore, in light of the diocese’s stated goal, Farmingdale State will not support a new position.”

The school has also warned the diocese that the annual $25,000 it spends on advertising in the diocesan paper and on its television station is at risk.

Dolan is quick to acknowledge the tricky terrain of “evangelization.”

“We want to create a program where young adults feel welcomed and challenged by the Gospel. We’re not going to actively try to convert people. Obviously there is an interfaith element to this, but we really want to concentrate on bringing Catholic young adults on our college campuses closer to their faith. And we need to do that consistent with the law and in harmony with the rules and regulations of any university.”

Hofstra University, where Riordan has served as campus minister for 10 years, has its own objections to the diocesan plan, according to spokesperson Melissa Connoly.

“As the diocese understands, we have a strong and legitimate interest in the welfare of our students and therefore in the people who serve on campus as chaplain -- including their qualifications, their plans and their goals for our campus ministry.” Connoly said the school wants an opportunity to meet with candidates before they are appointed.

“The diocese expressed in a news story that the colleges don’t have any say in who gets hired,” Connoly said. “We would say that we do.”

Connoly said the school wants to keep Riordan right where she is. “Obviously our campus model is an interfaith model and Sister Kathy has been part of that interfaith team for 10 years. She’s part of the family here at Hofstra and she is beloved.”

It’s not clear that the diocese likes the notion of “interfaith” campus ministry. And to McGarvey, that is a red flag. “I’m the only minister of any faith on the Farmingdale campus. So while I’m here definitely for the Catholic population, if I really follow the tenets of Christ I’m here for everybody. Every time there is a truly pastoral need I’m the one that gets the phone call.”

Ingrid Galarza, a Farmingdale student and a practicing Catholic, is one of those who have called upon McGarvey. It was two years ago that Galarza, 21, met McGarvey, an adviser to Farmingdale’s Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society, which Galarza serves as president.

Since then the young Catholic has forged a close relationship with the Dominican sister, seeking assistance with everything from community service and bake sales to schoolwork and difficult personal issues. “Everything you could imagine,” Galarza said.

Today Galarza fears that McGarvey will be replaced with a young man fresh out of college.

While the diocese has not confirmed any gender restriction for peer ministry applicants, the scenario Galarza fears is certainly a possibility. “I’m young, am I going to feel more comfortable talking to a male who just graduated from college? I’m not going be comfortable going up to that person saying, ‘This is what’s wrong with me.’ As a female, I will not -- and I’m telling you, a lot of people -- they’re not going to speak to him.”

Dolan is clear that any issue a peer minister can’t handle will be passed on to the chaplain, an older priest. That is little comfort to Galarza. “These nuns have been on campus for years and years. They are really part of the community and bringing in a male who doesn’t know how the system works -- it’s kind of ridiculous.”

“The kids have come up to me,” McGarvey said, echoing Galarza, “and said ‘I’m not going to talk to somebody my age about my problems.”

Still, McGarvey is not opposed to the idea of peer ministry. “I have no problem with the peer ministry model. It works. But it doesn’t work in isolation.”

For his part, Dolan is convinced people just don’t get it. “The facts,” Dolan said, are sometimes “held hostage.” Still, he acknowledges what is clearly the primary issue for the Rockville Centre diocese: communication.

For her part, Galarza is dedicated to making sure the diocese hears the call of the students. She says hundreds of student letters and e-mails have been sent to the bishop.

“We have petitions going around the campuses. We are going to do polls.”

The whole thing, Galarza said, is testing her faith. “I’m disgusted. I think it’s pushing people away. You’re there for the faith. You’re there for the religion. You’re there for people. We’ll do as much as we can.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR writer and reporter. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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