Many public and private college campuses have ministerial staff to help students think about faith, God, religion, and what those things might mean for their lives.
At Catholic colleges, not surprisingly, such ministers—both lay and clerical—come to conversations with students about faith with personal beliefs and experiences mostly in the Catholic tradition, directed by the historical mission of an institution, according to Edmundite Father Brian Cummings, Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont.
Nevertheless, Catholic programs attract students of all faiths, largely because of the warmth and welcoming spirit that ministers and student participants bring to them. Such programs at St. Mike’s and many other Catholic colleges include:
- Spiritual retreats
- Volunteer service outreach
- Weekly and seasonal liturgies in the campus chapel
- Educational programs
- Interfaith coordination
- Personal counseling
- Opportunities for hospitality or fellowship
- Pilgrimage or educational trips
- Music ministry
Father Brian says that Mass, the sacraments, and church teaching remain central to the mission of the founding priests of Saint Michael’s, the small Society of Saint Edmund or “Edmundites,” who came from France to the United States more than a century ago as educators and missionaries to the poor. St. Mike’s is the only Edmundite college in the world; other schools founded by different Catholic religious orders—Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, and others—reflect those founding orders in their programs too, just as Saint Michael’s reflects the Edmundites with its purposeful attention to service, hospitality, and education.
Father Brian and his staff make sure students know that Campus Ministry is committed to interacting with every member of the college community in their search for truth while supporting them through struggles, regardless of religious background or personal belief system. “Campus Ministry is a place for people to turn to,” he says, noting that in today’s world, even at Catholic institutions, as many as half of students profess non-Catholic faith traditions or no faith at all. Music Minister Jerome Monachino has described a modern college campus as “mission territory.”
Yet close to 70% of St. Mike’s students report joining some sort of community service activity in their four years, from extended trips overseas or to an impoverished U.S. region during spring break to playing volleyball with prisoners, serving meals to local refugees, or throwing a “prom” for local senior citizens. Religious faith is sometimes a student’s motivator, service leaders say, but often it’s just a desire to help others, be with friends, and see the world.
Heidi St. Peter, Director of the Campus Ministry’s service arm called MOVE (Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts) at Saint Michael’s, sees such moments first and foremost as opportunities for her and other ministers to build relationships. “Faith, or the Catholic view of the world or of an issue, typically won’t be the first thing I talk about to somebody who joins a service trip or activity—and sometimes it’s not the 20th thing I talk about,” she says. “It’s usually after a relationship has developed that those bigger questions come into play in our office. I do think it’s about being open and available to people, and students take advantage of that openness.”
St. Mike’s ministry staff agrees that college students can profit most from these resources by having a comfortable and trusting relationship with a campus minister. Father Brian says he’ll ride the bus to games with sports teams or on tour with the choir, and then months or possibly years later, when a tough stretch of life hits somebody, that student who knows him from the earlier informal encounter will come to him for support.
“There’s a huge belief in campus ministry and Catholicism in general that a human person is body, mind, and spirit,” says Campus Minister Jason Moore, a 2001 Saint Michael’s graduate. “So whether a person is committed to a particular faith tradition or not, we still believe there is a spiritual dimension to who they are, and we want to help them to engage with that part of themselves while they’re here.”
Moore says beyond the signature larger programs and liturgies, like a well-attended Sunday evening student Mass, for instance, this may be achieved through meditation, at an off-campus synagogue or Islamic center, or with one-on-one counseling when a student encounters “the sufferings of life” or seeks deeper meaning in their work and activities.
Music Minister Monachino—a 1991 chemistry graduate, recording artist, and jazz guitarist who leads Saint Michael’s liturgical choir and ensemble—finds the choir to be another great place for building relationships. He believes participating in campus ministry activities is really about developing what he calls a “sacramental” mindset in students—a distinctly Catholic outlook “where ordinary things like bread, wine, oil, water, fire, and relationships become extraordinary . . . and the ordinary, everyday connections with folks on campus have the potential to become transparent to the transcendent.”