|St. John's Catholic Newman Center Opens New Doors
By Karna Swanson
CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, 24 SEPT. 2008 (ZENIT)
September means back-to-school, and for many young people attending
colleges and universities across the country, that means returning to
For 80 years, that home for Catholic students attending the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been St. John's Catholic
The largest Newman Center of its kind and the only Newman Center to
offer residential housing, the center has served some 70,000 students.
Earlier this month St. John's marked it's 80th anniversary by opening
a new residential facility that includes 127,000 square feet of student
living quarters, study and social lounges, computer labs, and a dining
ZENIT spoke with Father Gregory Ketcham, the center's chaplain, who
oversaw the $40 million expansion. He discusses the mission of St.
John's Catholic Newman Center, and reflects on what's to come during the
center's next 80 years.
Q: Parents sending their children to college worry if their
sons/daughters will come home with their faith intact. What does the
Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus do to assure that
Father Ketcham: There's certainly no "magic potion" we can give young
people to make sure they don't fall away from the Church.
In fact, we're not really interested in helping students merely keep
their faith intact; at Newman, our greatest desire is to see students
deepen their understanding and commitment to the mission of the Church,
to grow in faith, hope and charity.
Toward that end, we primarily invest our energy into three venues of
1. Our retreat program, "Koinonia," led by students for students four
times each year;
2. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), whose
missionaries train students to evangelize their peers;
3. Faithful liturgical celebrations whereby students learn to pray
with the Church and experience the beauty of our relationship with
We enjoy the great blessing of being able to offer academic credit
courses in Catholicism. Kenneth Howell, director of our Center's
Institute of Catholic Thought, teaches two courses each year
Introduction to Catholicism (Fall) and Modern Catholic Thought (Spring)
through the University's Religious Studies department.
In addition to being the only residential Newman Center in the
country, we are especially privileged to have seven priests and two
Franciscan sisters attached to our community. Spiritual direction is
simply a part of life for many of our students.
Q: What are the particular challenges of young people who attend
public universities with a Newman Center as opposed to those youth who
attend a Catholic university?
Father Ketcham: It could be misleading to paint either educational
path with a single brush
for instance, one finds faculty who directly challenge belief in the
Church's teachings at both Catholic and secular institutions.
The same questions apply to each, and should be asked by any student
evaluating his/her school choices: Is this Newman Center/university
faithful to the magisterium? Does it encourage prayer? Do the priests
celebrate the liturgy as they ought? Can I find honest, faithful answers
to difficult moral and doctrinal questions? Will I be invited into an
That said, I believe the difference lies in what's outside. By and
large, the test for the effectiveness of a faithful Catholic
university's formation program lies on the other side of graduation,
while on a large secular campus like ours, students fairly regularly
find their faith challenged
in the classroom, while their moral fortitude is tested by student
activities and the "party scene."
Q: Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, called the Newman
Center on the University of Illinois campus "one of the most important
apostolates" in Illinois. Do you agree?
Father Ketcham: Wholeheartedly, yes. We at Newman have both the
privilege and the grave responsibility to contribute to the renewal of
culture from the ground up, by introducing tomorrow's fathers, mothers,
priests, sisters and professionals of all varieties to Jesus Christ and
The college years are a crucial turning point in the lives of young
people: "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more."
Just as there are serious temptations of all sorts on a large secular
campus, there are great possibilities for sanctity. We really believe we
have a special opportunity to lead all the students involved in our
program to greater depths of belief, to greater union with Christ, and
thus to have them develop the desire to share their faith wherever they
find themselves through the rest of their lives.
Q: Newman Hall has one of the highest retention rates and grade point
averages for its residents among all university housing. Why do you
think that is?
Father Ketcham: I believe those two numbers echo the tone we try to
set in the hall. It's a question of students' priorities
we have a number of residents who chose Newman Hall precisely because of
its Catholicity, which shows an ability to set the right priorities, and
necessarily spills over into the academic sphere.
Students who get involved in the communal life of the center find
lifelong friends, not just drinking buddies. Meaningful relationships
are what young people long for most, so they gravitate toward places
where they can find others of like mind.
The students also respond well to our reminders that their current
vocation is to seek holiness as students.
Q: What are the specific challenges and positive aspects of
ministering to the youth of today?
Father Ketcham: I think in many ways the problem is the solution
young people are hungry for real connection, for concrete answers to
deeply felt questions, for direction in life.
It's unfortunate that most Catholic young people have not received a
great deal of coherent catechesis, but this "millennial" generation is
marked by openness to matters of faith. In a word, they are teachable.
As I alluded to earlier, there are all sorts of challenges to living
as a Christian on today's secular campuses. There's an almost ritualized
approach to "fun"
drinking to excess, "hooking up," etc. There are also courses wherein
students find their most deeply held values directly contradicted.
One of the great rewards of my job is seeing students wrestle with
these obstacles and overcome them. I have a front-row seat for watching
students experience conversion and embrace their vocations. I'm fully
convinced that a number of these young people won't simply remain
"Catholic" as they venture out into the world, but will seriously
embrace the "great commission" as their personal mission in life.
Q: What do you hope will be the fruits of this 80th year of ministry
at the University of Illinois?
Father Ketcham: I hope that we are able to set the stage for another
80 years on campus.
Moreover, I hope that with the addition of some 300 souls to our
— due to our recent expansion
we see more of what we've seen over the years: more souls encountering
the living God in word and sacrament, and responding to that encounter
by giving themselves over to his will.