At Kennedy Catholic High High School where I am president and principal, Catholic education is the raison d’être. But at a secular college, like SUNY Maritime College, where I am the director of campus ministries, the Catholic education work is arguably even more important.
Catholic campus ministries help college students discover their life’s path. It’s no coincidence that we light that lamp at a point on the timeline when most students are asking many of the Big Questions. We try to help them make the right decisions – or at least avoid making some of the famously bad decisions to which colleges traditionally play host.
A survey done by UCLA through a cooperative institutional research program found that 59 percent of students leave the faith during college years. Another survey by the Barna Group concluded that just 20 percent of students who attended church regularly as teens remained spiritually active by age 29.
These are critical statistics. With a few rare exceptions, students forge their life’s worldview while they are at university and into their 20s. At the fulcrum of their decision-making at this time should be their faith. Young adults in the midst of “finding themselves” without the moral compass or spiritual map that their faith provides will almost always end up lost.
Along with the spiritual guidance needed to make better-informed critical decisions, campus ministries connect students with young Catholics like themselves. We arrange dances, ski trips, as well as retreats and opportunities to frequent the sacraments – all activities designed to help create and strengthen Catholic networks that will support them throughout their post-college lives.
The Church has no formal means of intentionally and actively connecting high school graduates to Catholic university communities before they begin college. This is why the job of Catholic ministries on college campuses is so pivotal. Campus ministries can and should be a Catholic student’s Sherpa guide through that short but consequential trek towards adulthood.
My work at SUNY Maritime also involves being chaplain for the school’s Newman Club. Named after Cardinal John Henry Newman and inspired by his writings, these campus havens are a network of residence and Catholic ministry centers at non-Catholic universities throughout the world. They provide opportunities for community service and Christian fraternity. The first Newman Center was established in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania. The “Newman Movement” itself began ten years earlier at the University of Wisconsin to help Catholics grow in their faith amidst a perceived wave of anti-Catholicism moving across U.S. campuses. Today, Newman centers fall within the hierarchy of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.
As more and more college students take the “I’m spiritual but not religious” cop-out, it falls to campus ministries to navigate them past their adolescent faith. We need to re-introduce them to the objective belief system that informs their spirituality, and direct them away from a subjective construct that merely validates their whims.