As college students scattered throughout the country returning to their homes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, campus ministers at colleges and universities in the Archdiocese of Washington continued to bring Christ to the students through various virtual Bible studies, small groups and personal meetings, even as students were no longer on campus. 

“One of the things that has been just really inspiring and re-energizing what we’re doing, is seeing them and their successes in their own campuses,” said Molly Herrera, program director of campus and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington. “What campus ministry is able to do so well is that they’ve been able to figure out this long-term accompaniment with their young adults. 

“(Campus ministers) know their students by name… they invite them by name. There’s this authentic, trusting relationship that brings them in that is able to do community really well,”  she said.

Molly Herrera, program director of campus and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington, helped facilitate a College Senior Night with Archbishop Gregory on May 19, 2020 on Zoom. (CS screen shot/ Andrew Biraj)

At St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City, William Bolin led the Catholic Seahawks in at least three weekly events while the students were on campus -- “our big thing was personal interaction,” he said.

But when students were sent home because of the pandemic, Bolin, the campus minister, immediately moved all the scheduled events such as Bible study online to Zoom meetings, even adding events to meet the new needs of his students.

“What we found pretty quickly was that after a couple of weeks, any excitement to be home… had all worn off. Boredom, stress, anxiety and sometimes depression definitely was kicking in for students, so having small check-in events was definitely very successful for them,” Bolin said.

Students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland attended Mass together virtually almost daily through a YouTube channel that their parish made, and Bolin said that they also started creating two video reflections that were also posted each week on YouTube.

“I think our mission of the ministry changed a little bit once the quarantine happened, because we went from evangelizing and sharing the Gospel on campus, to suddenly there is no campus,” he said. “We switched to forming our current disciples, our students who were part of the mission.”  

For Christina DiSalvo, who is the Catholic campus minister at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the main ministry the Catholic students at Gallaudet came together for each week was a Sunday evening Mass and time for community with one another. Gallaudet University serves deaf and hard of hearing students and hearing students interested in serving those communities. Just before the coronavirus hit the local area in mid-March, the Catholic campus ministry at Gallaudet initiated a program through the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas utilizing YouCat, an online resource about the Catholic faith that was interpreted into American Sign Language and fully accessible for all students.

“It’s a beautiful resource; we love it so much,” DiSalvo said. “A lot of college students in general, and specifically at Gallaudet University because of the common language deficit that deaf kids experience as they’re growing up… there’s a big gap in understanding (about the Catechism of the Catholic Church)… The students I had coming to Mass were thrilled with this resource, and we would meet weekly to go over a video.”

Taking their YouCat classes online through the Google Meet program, DiSalvo and the dozen-or-so students that she met with regularly were able to continue learning more about the Catholic faith in a way that was accessible for the students, and allowed them to continue fostering community among one another while they were apart.

“Gallaudet is such a beacon for the deaf community because that deficit of language access that they have depending from where around the country they come from,” DiSalvo said. “Gallaudet is finally the place where everybody speaks the same language, everybody has full understanding, full access to everything that is going on. Especially when you narrow that down to the deaf Catholic community, that’s an even smaller group of people and so hard to find.”

She added that many students shared with her how happy they were to continue throughout the end of the school semester, especially as many of them may have returned to more remote parts of the country where access is more difficult.

“Being able to maintain that community was absolutely essential to their journey,” DiSalvo said.

Student leaders at the University of Maryland lead an online discussion. (Courtesy Photo) 

The Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland, College Park not only continued with a virtual ministry as well, but even added 25 students to their weekly Bible studies during the online second half of the semester, said Lisa Lytwyn, the coordinator of campus ministry at the Catholic Student Center.

Immediately after University of Maryland students learned that they would not return to campus after spring break, the Catholic Student Center reached out to them, asking for volunteers to help lead virtual prayer over Zoom in the coming weeks.

“Right away, the students basically filled up all of these weekly opportunities for prayer,” she said. “We had a daily Divine Mercy Chaplet, during Lent we had Stations of the Cross, students were leading Morning Prayer, we transitioned to have Mass online… and all of our small group Bible studies online.”

With the change in pace, Lytwyn said she and her team were able to take the time to reach out to all of the students in the ministry and invite them personally to attend these online events, as well as the livestreamed Holy Week and Easter liturgies with Archbishop Gregory.

“God was not limited,” Lytwyn said.

As students might return back to campus in coming months, Lytwyn said this experience has helped remind the ministry that “we are here to help bring the Gospel into whatever the current experience is.”

“Part of our role has been an individual outreach and then (finding) where Christ is in this and finding how to respond,” she said, adding that this experience has allowed them to embrace a new perspective that will allow them to be more flexible with ministry in the coming semesters. 

The campus ministry team and students at American University were on a mission trip in New York City to serve with the Missionaries of Charity and the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Sisters of Life during their spring break in early March when they learned that in-person classes on campus were cancelled for the rest of the semester, public Masses were suspended and the coronavirus was named a global pandemic.

“It was the weirdest week of my life,” Grace Hegarty, the campus minister at American University, said. “We didn’t have a moment that week as a staff to take a step back and see what we wanted to do about this.”

But as the team returned to the Washington, D.C. area, they quickly were able to come up with a game plan for the semester – with most of their programming transferring to Zoom.

“We pretty much kept up the entire ministry and did it all on Zoom,” she said. “That week we also figured out how to do open broadcast software for Facebook and YouTube for Mass.”

While they kept up their one-on-one meetings and daily Mass over Zoom, Hegarty said they were also able to add a retreat for students – the e-Treat – an online retreat on the Holy Spirit.

“We did the same thing and just adapted and figured out what needed to be different,” she said.

Hegarty said that while it was relatively simple to transition their programming, she was thankful to experience this time with her students.

“It’s amazing to see how much the students are still craving the Lord,” Hegarty said. “And after all this time. I have students weeping because they can’t receive the Eucharist. Never have I seen my students wanting and deeply desiring God more than now.”