Sure, campus ministry is about helping at church, volunteering, and sharing your faith with your peers. But it’s also something much more fundamental to the Catholic college experience.
The first time I knocked on a homeless man’s box, I was around the corner from Grand Central Station in New York City on a cold winter day. I had dropped campus ministry students off to give out sandwiches and drinks to homeless people in the area. I parked our van and brought a bagged lunch over to a large cardboard box against a wall.
I really wasn’t sure what the etiquette was, whether I should say something or wait to see if anyone came out. Then I just figured, someone lives here. I’ll knock.
When I did, a voice came out of the box, “Hello?”
I said, “I’ve got a lunch here for you if you want.”
He said, “Sounds good,” and he came out of his box.
He was a middle-aged man who looked like he just came home from a hard day at work. He thanked me as I handed him the lunch, and I opened one for myself. We ate together on the sidewalk. He was perfectly polite, and we talked about where I was from, where he was from, what we were doing in the city, and what was new in sports.
After about 25 minutes our lunch came to an end. Then he said simply, “This was really nice. I hope God blesses you for it.” I told him I hoped God blessed him too. And that was it. As I drove around and picked the students up, they all had their own stories to tell. Some had wonderful experiences, some were disappointing, some uneventful. But the students and I have learned important things over the years doing this: the food we give these people will satisfy their hunger for only a few hours, but the kindness and love of God we share with them lasts much longer. And we get as much from the experience as the people we serve.
The mission of a Catholic college education
Catholic colleges like my institution, Molloy College, have a purpose that goes beyond a good education and training for a career. Those goals are critical in the life of any student and in the life of any college. But a Catholic education is always rooted in Jesus Christ—even when a student may not realize it.
This is really not surprising when we consider all the other good works Catholic institutions do because they are following in the footsteps of the Lord. A patient rushed to a Catholic hospital is likely unaware of the Christian mission that built and sustains the medical care they receive, but it is the foundation of the hospital nonetheless.
In fact, the very idea of a university was created by the Catholic Church in medieval Europe. They did this with the basic belief that all knowledge—all truth—comes from God. So the study of all knowledge leads back to God. That is the heart of a Catholic education.
Campus ministry and chaplain offices are public and direct signs of the Christian purpose of a Catholic college. Students tend to be absorbed in school work, sports, and friends, which are all important, wonderful aspects of life. But they aren’t and shouldn’t be all of life. Our obligations to God and to others are also a vital part of a happy, balanced life.
Inside campus ministry
Our campus ministry tries to help students live out their faith and find that balance in their lives. As Saint Paul said of himself, we must be all things to all people.
- For people going through a crisis or mourning the death of a loved one, we are there to comfort and help them through hard times.
- For those who need food or clothes, we gather the things they need as far as we are able.
- For students who want to give to others—whether to the homeless, children struggling in school, or the elderly—we bring them to where they can best be of service.
- And for those who want to deepen their faith in God, we join with them as fellow pilgrims on the journey.
Daily Mass is the most fundamental and important way we worship God and strengthen our faith. It’s so simple that it’s often taken for granted, even forgotten. But we find that many who are suffering, serving others, or seeking God are often drawn to Mass eventually. It is unlike nearly any other experience in our everyday lives.
We also find unexpected opportunities spring up from the faith of our students. Years ago we had a student named Vanessa who wanted to have a blessing of the animals at Mass on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in October. We had the Mass outdoors at our Grotto and statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a beautiful day. Employees, students, and family members brought their dogs and cats to campus, and it was a wonderful Mass filled with joy and laughter.
Vanessa graduated that May, but the next year people clamored for the Blessing of the Animals again. It had become something special. We have done it for more than 10 years now, and it brings people together in a way different from other events. Vanessa started with a simple idea born out of love and affection, and it has lived on beautifully long after her graduation. Many people have enjoyed this Mass without knowing Vanessa or knowing that she started it all. That is a symbol of what campus ministries and the Christian life itself is: planting so that another person may reap.
Jesus always taught people through parables, and it seems hard to improve on that approach. One parable that might be especially apt for students is the parable of the talents. Jesus tells of a master who gives three servants large but differing amounts of gold to put to use while he is away. The first two servants with the most gold go out and use it to make more gold. The third servant hides his in the earth the whole time the master is away. When the master returns, he is very pleased with his first two servants and rewards them. But the master reproves and banishes the third servant who feared losing the gold and buried it.
Most of the time, this parable is explained to mean that God gives us all talents he wants us to use well in life, and that is certainly a good interpretation. But the gold also represents the love and mercy God gives each of us and means for us to share with others, not just keep to ourselves. When we share that love with others, we wind up with more than we were originally given.
Campus ministry, and Catholic education in general, lives by this parable. The homeless man in the cardboard box and Vanessa and her love of God and animals showed me how true this is. Once this way of living your faith is firmly rooted in your life, life itself becomes richer than we can possibly imagine.