‘Faith as an anchor’: Catholic campus ministries serve students during pandemic
Oct 9, 2020
While the majority of Catholic students enrolled in colleges and universities within the Archdiocese of Washington began their studies online for the fall 2020 semester, Catholic chaplains and campus ministers are continuing to provide opportunities for students to gather in community and grow in faith.
For Catholic students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which is holding its fall semester online, campus ministry was able to continue virtually.
Father Robert Boxie III, who began serving as Catholic chaplain for Howard University this school year, said that the group’s weekly Thursday night fellowship has continued online. With time for community building and prayer, the group also gathers for a presentation surrounding the year’s theme – mindfulness.
“With everything going on, (we’re asking) how do we remain mindful and take care of ourselves, our mental health, our spiritual health, our physical health amidst all the changes and the new normal that we find ourselves in right now,” Father Boxie said.
In recent weeks, he said the group has heard presentations about mindfulness in prayer, as well as social mindfulness – being concerned and sensitive to the needs of others.
“I want to hear what their (the students’) concerns are,” Father Boxie said. “What’s on their mind and their heart – and respond to their needs.”
In addition to their weekly gatherings, Father Boxie said they have been live streaming Mass through the group’s Facebook page, and he has been posting weekly videos to engage with the students.
One particular challenge that he said he has faced is reaching out to new people, especially as he is new to the campus himself and students are not attending classes in person.
“It’s a challenge to reach out to students,” Father Boxie said. “It’s one thing to see someone in person, but it’s (group video calls) the best we have for now. Praise God He blesses our efforts and helps us create community because ultimately that is who this is for.”
But the need for a community of faith remains stronger than ever before, Father Boxie said.
“We’re living in a time where our faith is being tested, and we’re living in a moment where we really don’t have control over much of what happens, (other) than what is happening around us,” he said. “Faith can be a huge, huge help, a huge consolation and a guide to help us navigate these uncertain times. It’s not unknown that for college students… especially now, faith is so important -- to be grounded in something, to give meaning to the things that we can’t explain and also to build up a community of believers around you to support you.”
At George Washington University, where similarly classes are conducted online, Julie Cilano, the Catholic campus minister, said that despite the fact that students, both new and returning, are scattered throughout the country and have yet to gather in person, the Newman Center has welcomed many new students to their community, including 16 students enrolled in RCIA classes.
In September, the Newman Center held a “Newcomers of Newman” online retreat for freshman and incoming students which included introductions of student leaders, missionaries, and talks by Cilano and Father Martino Choi, the Catholic chaplain of George Washington University. Cilano said that it was a great way to hear from the students and break out into small groups for discussions.
In addition to retreats, the Newman Center has hosted a trivia night online, and plans to host events such as a men’s and women’s nights virtually. Cilano said they have worked to increase their online social media presence with videos such as a Spiritual Espresso series, which includes short videos on Church teachings or devotions by the Dominicans. The FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries on the George Washington University campus lead nearly 20 Bible studies virtually.
“God has really been in this the whole time,” Cilano said. “I’m seeing students still grow in their faith. It’s super powerful to see how God is working in this.”
As the Newman Center continues to minister to the George Washington University Catholic community through virtual gatherings, Cilano said they are all continuing to reach out to students in whatever ways they can.
“Isolation and loneliness can make it challenging and intimidating to reach out to people,” she said. “I’m super impressed with the students that have reached out, making connections.”
Father Conrad Murphy, Catholic chaplain at University of Maryland in College Park, said he has found his students yearning for both community and a solid foundation of faith as some students returned to campus this fall. After a nearly three-week quarantine when no public events were permitted on campus, the Catholic Student Center was able to begin daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration, as well as some retreats in person.
“(During the quarantine) the students wanted Mass, they wanted to be in community, they wanted to be with the Lord so much,” Father Murphy said. “There is hunger for that community, and a place where they can gain it -- with faith as an anchor.”
In addition to the limited in-person events, the Catholic Student Center has been able to host online retreats for students and continue their many Bible studies.
Kelly DiFonzo, a junior at the University of Maryland and the president of the Catholic Student Center, said that to adjust for the new learning model for this year, “we had to step away from big event ministry, and adopt more of a small group model.”
Alongside other student leaders and students in small groups, DiFonzo said the entire Catholic Student Center is doing a study on the book, Time for God, by Father Jacques Philippe.
Father Murphy said students have asked him how to hold onto God in the midst of the pandemic, and as they begin a new school year.
“They’re the ones saying that it’s a crazy year and we need to hear that we’re loved by God and that He is all-powerful,” Father Murphy said. “Christ is above all of this.”
DiFonzo agreed and said students are searching for a way to “ground (themselves) in prayer.”
“COVID has stopped so many things,” she said. “All we have left is our relationship with God.”
Seeing the students take the situation and do their best to make it work and allow for community to continue, Father Murphy said, is impressive.
“I’m impressed with how creative they are,” he said. “They’re not limited to things that they have done in the past.”
Above all, Father Murphy, who recently joined the Catholic Student Center as chaplain over the summer, said that he is inspired by the students over and over again.
“These kids are the seeds of renewal in parishes,” he said. “They’ve had this time formed well by the Lord. A place like this gives so much hope. There is a generation of the Church on fire.”
The Annual Appeal of the Archdiocese of Washington provides key funding for the charitable and educational outreach and ministries of the Catholic Church in the nation’s capital and the five surrounding Maryland counties, including support for Catholic chaplains and campus ministers at local universities. For information on supporting the Annual Appeal, go to appeal.adw.org.