80 Years of Ministering to College Students

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 their "home-away-from-home."

For 80 years, that home for Catholic students attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been St. John's Catholic Newman Center.

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 area.

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 they do?

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 outreach:

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 Christ.

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 authentic community?

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 sometimes attacked 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 his Church.

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 community 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.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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