By Claire Ronner
With another fall semester already here, college students flood campuses across the country and many freshmen leave the shelter of their hometowns for the first time. It’s a challenging transition, and the constant bombardment of new ideas makes it difficult for students to retain the faith they’ve always known.
“For the first time, you’re calling your own shots,” says Sarah Striebich, campus minister at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and Newman Center at Ball State University in Muncie. “You have an awesome opportunity to step up in your faith and find out what you believe and how you want to be involved in that.”
Luckily, campus Catholic centers understand that. Each of Indiana’s largest state schools — Ball State University, Purdue University and Indiana University — have Newman Centers, student-focused communities dedicated to Catholic ministry at non-Catholic universities.
At Ball State, the Catholic Student Union (CSU) actively promotes Catholic ministry at the start of every semester. Students host an ice cream social, give out coffee and doughnuts on the first day of class, and organize a Eucharistic Adoration during the first week back.
Sarah Striebich acts as a full-time religious advisor for the CSU, but sophomores, juniors and seniors plan the retreats, speakers and mission trips. Since CSU is a student organization through Ball State, the CSU council annually elects its leaders to serve yearlong terms and offers new students leadership opportunities as they participate in church events.
The Fellowship of University Catholic Students, or FOCUS, engages Ball State Catholics with 50 different Bible study sessions, all student-led. The FOCUS leaders act as mentors but also receive mentorship from one of the four Catholic missionaries who work on Ball State’s campus.
“As the FOCUS leaders grow and develop in their faith, they continue to reach out and give back to the younger students,” says Striebich. “As they reach their senior year they’re not as heavily involved so a new crop can come in and lead.”
In Bloomington, priests and brothers in the Dominican order help Indiana University students build a spiritual home at the St. Paul Newman Center. In the past year, the entire Dominican staff changed at St. Paul’s, and the new priests are looking forward to bringing fresh life to the center.
“We promise students that each of us priests will be involved in every aspect of campus ministry,” says Father John Meany at a weekend Mass. “We’re excited to work directly with all the inspiring young adults of the parish.”
Throughout the year, St. Paul’s Student Life Team executes activities for Hoosier Catholics. This includes a mid-week group prayer and Adoration followed by a group social hour. On Sundays, the parish offers a “last chance” 9 p.m. Mass for students who can’t get to morning or evening Masses. Students can lead or participate in a variety of retreats and volunteer in the community with each other.
And since nothing draws the broke college student like a free meal, parishioners welcome all to a monthly spaghetti dinner following the 5:30 p.m. Mass and also cook hundreds of pancakes for a late-night stress relief during finals week.
Up in West Lafayette, the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center estimates that 13,000 Catholics attend Purdue in addition to the 650 registered families. Dominican Father Patrick Baikauskas notes that most families are part of the staff and faculty of Purdue University, but the largest faction of parishioners is still students.
Father Baikauskas points to the large student involvement in the Sunday school program as an enriching way for undergraduates to interact with the parish community.
“Besides St. Tom’s, I haven’t come across a Newman Center that has over 300 children in a Sunday school program largely taught by college students,” says Father Baikauskas. “It’s a really important ministry and students connect with the community in a very powerful way.”
In addition to teaching Sunday school, Boilermaker Catholics can participate in Mass by joining one of six separate choirs that accompany each Sunday Mass. The Campus Renew student group holds Bible studies in the dorms, and St. Thomas Aquinas has an active mission trip program. In one year, the parish will send students to Haiti over winter break, Bolivia during the “May-mester,” and four different sites over spring break.
On the social side, the Purdue Newman Center holds movie nights every Saturday and a weekly dinner before the 7 p.m. Mass for $2, since the university doesn’t offer meals on Sundays.
“This is a very impressionable time for young people and they’re going to be making a lot of decisions that will effect them throughout their life,” says Father Baikauskas. “It’s our responsibility and our call as the Catholic center is to reach out to students and help them be the face of Jesus Christ on campus.”
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