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Searching and finding God in college common for students

When students fall away, campus ministry is always there to welcome them back

Published: March 13, 2017         
Arkansas Catholic illustration / Travis McAfee photo

Freshman year was rough for Zachary Henson. After heartbreak, feeling stunted in his Catholic faith as if he was praying to a “brick wall” and joining a fraternity, his life was spiraling. 

“I was living out the fraternal lifestyle while trying to convince myself I was still an OK Catholic,” said the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville student. “I was consistently drinking on the weekends, partying and I’d say I had a line, I wasn’t going to have sex, but I certainly pushed that often times. I used the excuse I didn’t feel God working in my life so I filled it with earthly things.”

He failed two classes, which cut him from the fraternity, and he was forced to make them up during the summer to keep his scholarship. Everything changed sophomore year when he talked with a campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish.

“I told him everything I had gone through. I told him I needed to get back into the Church, get back into the Catholic ministry and rekindle my fire with God,” Henson said. “… God continually stripped these earthly things away from me to get back to my core.”

“I can say I’ve been there, done that and I’m still able to turn back to God … no soul is too far away from God’s grace.” Zachary Henson, campus minis-try student intern

Today, Henson, 22, of Dallas, uses those dark times of faith to minister to college students as a servant scholar, one of the parish’s student interns, in his senior year.

“When I’m having these conversations with underclassmen, they parallel what I went through. I can say I’ve been there, done that and I’m still able to turn back to God … no soul is too far away from God’s grace,” he said.

While not every student encounters dramatic lifestyle shifts like Henson, many are left searching for God as they gain independence. According to a 2013 national study by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., 32 percent of college students identify as true believers, 32 percent view themselves as spiritual but not religious and 28 percent secular. Of those statistics, most of the secular students and about a third of spiritual believers were known as “nones,” with have no religious identity.

But when students fall away from their faith, Catholic campus ministries are there to catch them.

Home away from home

There are nine campus ministry programs at Arkansas colleges (see sidebar) and each provide opportunities for students to grow in their faith. Adam Koehler and Juliane Pierini, campus ministers at St. Thomas Aquinas, said there are roughly 60 to 75 students who participate in social events through the ministry, not including more than 30 student leaders.

“We want St. Thomas and the Catholic campus ministry to be a place they can call home. A place they feel comfortable hanging out,” Koehler said. Pierini, who was active in campus ministry as a student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, added, “Having the truth that is the Catholic Church and having a community available walking you through those changes and whatever sort of confusion or lack of direction, there’s really no better way to turn than back to your home and what’s familiar.”

Deacon Richard Papini, who has served as director of Catholic Campus Ministry at UCA and Hendrix College in Conway for 18 out of his 19 years as an ordained deacon with help from his wife Andrea, said he’s been excited to see the evolution of campus ministry. For about five years, the campus partnered with Evangelical Catholic, a national non-profit that helps colleges, parishes and dioceses implement evangelization programs. Today, the campus has five Bible study groups, praise and worship, adoration, weekend Masses, mission trips and a host of social activities to draw in students, like free weekly lunches which feed about 200.

“The ones who invest themselves in our ministry, I’m just ecstatic of their level of commitment and their desire to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ and their faith,” Papini said.

He said the focus is now on students reaching out to other students for evangelization rather than waiting for them to show up.

“We’re trying to evangelize one soul at a time,” Papini said.

Deacon William Burmester, who will be ordained a priest May 27, was involved in CCM at UCA from 2006 to 2011 and also worked on staff. He said he found more fulfillment being in a Catholic student community rather than dating and a deeper spirituality from traveling to countries like Jamaica and Belize on mission trips.

“For me each step in that process made me think about the priesthood a little more,” he said.

Drifting away

The Trinity study found that while 82.1 percent of students who considered themselves religious went to a religious service frequently as a child, so did 37.2 percent of secular students as well as 55.1 percent who consider themselves spiritual.

Pierini said it is “natural” to drift away from religion in college.

“You’re constantly looking to find your niche and you’re exposed to different ideas, which isn’t a bad thing,” Pierini said. “It’s also kind of a way to explore what else is out there, which leads away from the comfort and tradition of the Catholic Church.”

Henson said he’s had several friends leave the Church and think of themselves as spiritual.

“One of the main reasons of the rise of this is the relativistic culture — do whatever it is that works for you. As a marketing major, I see it as a tough job to sell the Catholic Church to people,” he said. “I believe God created this structure destined to bring you to joy, happiness and to heaven. But at the same time it requires a lot of sacrifice. They feel God’s presence, they feel they were made by the creator of the universe but still are in that aspect of I want to do what I want.”

They can then fall into a mentality of fewer eternal consequences for their actions. According to the nationwide 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research Center, 63 percent of college-educated adults believe in heaven, while just 48 percent believe in hell.

Rianna Bradley, 22, of Mayflower, also a servant scholar at St. Thomas, is a cradle Catholic and a graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock. She said staying busy with campus ministry kept her on a Christ-centered path. 

“I really liked this boy, but I knew he was not a good influence on me. I wanted to go to his house, but I had to go lead Bible study,” she said. “It keeps you accountable and it surrounds you with a positive, uplifting foundation and environment so that way your whole life can start to become positive.”

Papini said he estimates there are at least 1,000 students on campus who are Catholic, but the ministry doesn’t see nearly that many participate, with many joining evangelical Christian ministries. A 2015 survey by Pew Research found 52 percent of Catholics have left the Church at some point, with 11 percent returning.

“The majority of the students don’t know the treasure we have in our Catholic faith. They haven’t been fully catechized to know the fullness of the truth that lies in the Catholic faith and the treasure we have in the Eucharist,” he said. “Once they start latching onto that, they discover the truth.”

Drifting away can also mean finding a new faith. Kyla McCain, 20, a junior at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro who was raised in a strong Baptist home, began attending Mass and few activities at the Blessed John Newman University Parish with her best friend.

“She would come to church with me, I’d go with her to Mass in the evening so we didn’t have to go alone,” said the Sheridan resident. “… The more that I went I felt closer to God in the Catholic Church than in other churches. It was something I just prayed about a lot.”

McCain joined the Church last Easter.

“I was raised in a Christian home, just not a Catholic one. To me it just showed me a lot about finding my own faith and what it means for me away from my parents,” she said. “… I did fall way from the church I was raised in, but it meant a lot to me to find my faith again on my own. I feel it’s stronger now than it ever was living with my parents.”

A faithful foundation

Bradley, who will graduate in May and plans to pursue a doctorate in chiropractic in St. Louis, said it’s always been a challenge to juggle homework, studying, a social life and church activities, which include working at St. Thomas. 

“I have a planner that I stick to a lot and make sure I have everything down. A couple Wednesdays ago I was supposed to lead the reflection at Praise Unplugged” that evening, but after being on campus since 7:20 a.m., she said Koehler was able to take over for her. She said it’s important to know when to say no.

“I think so many people think ‘It’s a church event, I have to go.’ There’s going to be other people that can go,” Bradley said, but added that faith is “a very important part of my life and if I’m more involved with church, I’m more involved with my faith and can grow that foundation more and make friends in the church.”

When Burmester worked with CCM as a student, he said he often received calls from fellow students between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., times when the homework was done and they were left alone to sit with their thoughts. CCM provided that community of support in the tough transitioning times of college with each passing year and then ultimately, moving into the workforce, he said.

Pew Research Center found in their religious survey that just 57 percent of college educated adults and 52 percent of those with a post-graduate degree said they believe in God with absolute certainty. Weekly attendance at a religious service was just 36 percent for those with both college and post-graduate education.

“The Catholic Church is not just a church for one moment in life but a church for all the seasons,” Burmester said. “Transition points cause a lot of stress and anxiety and campus ministry, especially at UCA, is sort of a foundation. It sets down on a foundation where you feel somewhat at peace and grounded.”

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