MELBOURNE, Fla. (CNS) — As students arrive on campuses around the country this fall to embark on their college career, many also will experience adult independence for the first time.
Thanks to the Newman Connection, a website assisting students to unite with Catholic campus ministries at more than 2,000 college and university campuses, students can transition to an adult faith connection — even before leaving home.
“A lot of us experienced our faith as our parents taught us,” said Joshua Diaz, 2012-13 president of the Catholic Student Union at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “But as incoming freshman, we have the opportunity to come to know ourselves, discover what we like — our studies, sports, activities, but also our faith — how to make it our own. Catholic campus ministry helped me to form myself and witness to how important it is to me.”
Bobby Forman is entering the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Active in youth ministry at Ascension Parish in Melbourne, he was introduced to the Newman Connection at the parish’s grad night celebration.
“I’m looking forward to going, but I’m afraid to leave at the same time,” Forman said. “I’ll be living in the dorm and was glad to find out about Catholic Campus Ministry. They have a lot of cool activities — like Wednesday night Mass and Meal and it has a family-feel to it — just like the group we have here at Ascension. It will be a good place to make good friends. My Catholic faith means a lot to me and I’m looking forward to getting involved with CCM when I get there.”
Ascension’s youth ministry director, Mark Kniepmann, explained that the grad night celebration helps high school graduates heading to college see that they have been prepared for life on campus and also have a home when they return.
“We are a steppingstone to continuing growth in faith on campus,” Kniepmann said. “It doesn’t end here. My hope is that when the seniors leave this program, they’re going to participate in campus ministry because that’s part of their life.”
Vanessa Carrillo, a University of Central Florida junior and vice president of Catholic Campus Ministry, will be welcoming Forman.
“A friend told me I should join,” Carrillo recalled about her own freshman experience, “and I scoffed at her saying, ‘That’s not for me!’ but I drove her to an event and liked it. They asked me to get involved and because of them asking me and my saying, ‘yes,’ I really know what it is to live my Catholic faith. It’s totally through CCM. I gave God a chance and he gave everything back to me and more.”
Bishop John G. Noonan of Orlando said he is excited about these growing campus ministry initiatives.
“I want every person to grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ and the church which means we need to help people stay connected through life’s transitions — from family and parish to college living and back to a parish and eventually to creating a new family. A priority for me, as bishop, is to enkindle a deeper faith throughout a lifetime and these efforts help,” he said.
There are now more than 60 dioceses actively connecting students to campus ministry through the Newman Connection — www.newmanconnection.com.
“It’s been somewhat incredible to watch the way this program is taking off,” said Matt Zerrusen, Newman Connection co-founder. “Not only has the reaction from the students been enthusiastic, but the response from campus ministers has been overwhelmingly supportive. For me personally, one of the benefits of the outreach program has been watching the students connect online and then seeing them in our Institute taking classes — truly engaging the faith at an adult level.”
The Archdiocese of Detroit has connected more than 1,000 students to campus ministry through the Newman Connection.
“I taught high school religion for five years and of 62 seniors in my 2012 class, only two of them knew campus ministry exists,” explained Chris Gawel, archdiocesan liaison for young adult and campus ministry. “One of the first people I met after taking this position was from the Newman Connection and I began collaborating with schools and youth ministries to promote Catholic campus ministry. I went to the high schools, Catholic and public to get the kids involved.”
Michael Schwalm, incoming freshman at Wayne State University in Detroit, met Gawel and became involved.
“I grew up in a Catholic family and was always at church,” Schwalm said, “but in the past couple of years, my faith has become a key part of my life – guiding me in everything else. I’m already connected with the Newman Catholic Center. Father Simon (Lobo, campus chaplain) is a really cool guy and there are tons of activities and events in campus ministry. I’m excited.”
Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee sent a letter to all schools and youth ministers in April requesting that they make the effort to connect the graduates.
“I enthusiastically endorse the Newman Connection’s high school outreach program connecting college freshman with a Catholic presence on their campuses,” Bishop Parkes said. “The need to evangelize our own college age sons and daughters, who could be at risk of losing their faith once on campus, has never been greater.”
Hannah Morrison will be a commuter student to the University of West Florida in Pensacola. She recently completed a campus orientation where she was uncomfortable with the open discussion of alcohol, drugs and sex and she is relieved she will be living at home with her family.
“I wouldn’t have known about Catholic campus ministry except for religion class,” Morrison, a graduate of Pensacola Catholic High School explained. “Knowing there are other Catholics is nice — someone you automatically connect with. The way we look at the world is closer and more familiar.”