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Forming the Future: Newman Centers fulfill call to enrich faith lives of young
This Months Issue
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Blessed John Henry Newman was long concerned about Catholic students attending secular universities. His writings and influence led others to borrow his name for clubs and centers aimed at helping Catholic students deepen and grow in their faith.
Bishop Paul J. Swain has identified support for the Newman Centers as among the highest priorities of the diocese. And for good reasons. For more than 50 years they have been fulfilling that role in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and one can imagine Cardinal Newman enjoying what he might see today at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Aberdeen, Pius XII Newman Center in Brookings and St. Thomas More Newman Center in Vermillion, or at the Newman Club in Madison.
Alec Weber strolls in to the Pius XII Newman Center at South Dakota State University and heads toward the chapel.
It is about 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. “Hey Alec,” a young lady calls to him. “Are you going to pray evening prayer?”
“I am,” he answers. “Want to join me?”
Shortly, a group of seven is standing in a circle in the lounge area praying evening prayer, using the stock of breviaries found on the bookshelf.
At that same moment in the adjacent chapel, Father Andrew Dickinson, the director of the Center, is hearing confessions and a waiting line has formed. Others are praying in the chapel; some with rosaries and others with various prayer books. At 5:30, more than 50 gather for daily Mass.
All this on a Tuesday; on Wednesday, students sign up for adoration and the sheet gives evidence that the day will be well covered.
A similar routine and response follows throughout the week, and the experience is replicated at the University of South Dakota and at Northern State University where daily Mass, confessions and prayer are part of the routine for many students.
Students at each Newman Center cite the open doors, strong relationships being built, the sense of home away from home, the oasis that the Newman Centers offer during the sometimes challenging years of college.
“The students are so vulnerable at this time in their lives,” said Father Tom Anderson, director of the Aquinas Newman at Northern State University.
“Sometimes the ways they make themselves vulnerable is absolutely inspiring, because they will allow God to make the needed changes in their lives. But this vulnerability works the other way too. They can potentially make bad choices and start to think in erroneous ways that affect the rest of their lives. The Newman Centers are essential because there are few other times in life that have such a big impact,” he said.
The importance of supporting college students through these years is obvious, but leaders say it is also about the future of our parishes.
“I am very aware that I am shaping the future leaders of our diocese,” said Father Dickinson. “The conception of parish, Church, prayer, liturgy, charity, family, vocation and so much more are being formed here. Our students are being formed in their practice of the faith and their conception of the faith. Colleges have always been about forming the future-that is why the Church has long been involved in higher education” he said.
Father Jeff Norfolk, who directs St. Thomas More Newman Center at the University of South Dakota, agrees.
“The faith that is being lived and learned here is impacting the diocese now and will for sure in the future. Students are sharing faith with their families even now and we are continuing to form them to be the future families, priests and sisters that will make up our diocese. We are sending missionaries to all parts of the United States into workplaces, onto college campuses and into every imaginable place where the Gospel needs to be shared” he said.
“What you see in the Newman Center student leaders will be what is expressed in the parishes 20-30 years from now,” said Father Dickinson. “These students love the Church, they love orthodox teaching, they love prayer and want to get better. These students understand the need for leadership in parishes. Hopefully they understand they aren’t leaders yet but of their need to learn and grow.”
FOCUS is the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, founded in 1998 to serve Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, but now found on campuses across the nation, including SDSU and USD. Each Newman Center has a group of “missionaries” who work all over campus getting to know students and inviting them to be part of the Centers.
“We really go to people where they are,” said Tony Menke, FOCUS team director at St. Thomas More in Vermillion. “We seek to be friends and have relationships with the person and then faith becomes a natural opportunity,” he said.
“The ability to affect one soul and that one soul to affect others is incredible,” said Andrew Tomsche, FOCUS team director at Pius XII in Brookings. “We call it spiritual multiplication. Personal invitation and personal investment is what makes it work.”
Tomsche and Menke are both Minnesota natives who learned about FOCUS and became excited about being involved and remain involved because of what they see and experience with the students.
The range of those impacted is wide. Most are Catholics, but some are not. Some arrive at campus with a deep and active faith life, but many arrive without that.
“The best is watching people realizing they can have an intimate relationship with Jesus,” Menke said. “Even those who grew up Catholic sometimes don’t know this very well,” he said. “They go from ‘I do my prayers’ to ‘I have a relationship’ to ‘now I truly believe it’s what I’m supposed to do,’” he said.
On a beautiful September Wednesday in the middle of the Northern State campus, student leaders and staff from Aquinas Newman are greeting and engaging those passing by during “club rush”. Along with other clubs and organizations, they seek to make the Newman and all its activities more known.
“It’s about trying to help students fall in love with faith and help them see the relevance and importance of faith in their lives,” said Conner Mattern, a senior student himself. He’s encouraging sign up for a bible study which he will lead.
Jessica Petersen is a former FOCUS missionary now working for the Newman Center, seeking to incorporate some of the tools she learned.
“Christ is the evangelist,” she said. “You can share your story and let God do the rest. One soul at a time, remembering that each is a person of God,” Petersen said.
Much of the conversation with those who stop at the booth is casual, but some get to the heart of faith issues quickly. With one, Petersen moves from a simple conversation about track to questions about eternal life. Another staff member, Nicole Frachiseur, listened patiently to the concerns of another student. NSU has a wide range of international students, including a significant number of Koreans, many of whom are Catholic.
Meanwhile, Father Tom Anderson stays available but also makes the rounds to other booths at the club rush. “This is a chance for us to be visible,” he said, noting he and other staff members are on campus frequently.
NSU also has an organized core of faculty who are Catholic and supportive of the Newman.
The group prays together, has a reading group (their current book is “Paradiso” by Dante), and this summer did a weekly rosary. Some of them also hosted a film series to help students engage in faith and the popular culture. Father Anderson is a part of that group.
“Catholics of the diocese might be surprised that a university can have this faith-filled and friendly environment,” said Professor Jon Schaff, now in his 14th year of teaching political science at NSU.
“Parents have had reason to be concerned about sending their children off, but this has always been a faith-friendly place and parents can feel comfortable to send them here,” Schaff said.
He particularly notes the ability to build relationships at Northern as a smaller school. At almost the exact moment he is making this point, a young man stops by to say thank you and farewell to Schaff. The former student expressed his gratitude to his professor as he was departing for a year of teaching at a school in Kuwait.
“Students are at a time when they are challenged, sometimes lost and confused, and also ripe for the Gospel,” Schaff notes.
“The culture here really is a magnified version of the culture of death,” said Father Norfolk. “The students face many distractions, temptations, and lies on a daily basis that often times come across as quite subtle, but forcefully attractive at the same time. The amazing thing is that when they can learn to discern the spirit behind these forces they can recognize that their hearts want more. We then try to build them a support system of prayer and friends to help them step out of and not fall into the continued cultural traps.”
Father Dickinson notes this challenge in another way. “The predominant virtue of their youth is to be nice. Nice people have friends, nice people get jobs, and nice people get the life they want. This virtue of niceness is false. Nice people do not stand up for the truth. Nice people would rather have your affection for them than for you to have the truth.”
“The current culture portrays Catholic teaching on ‘hot button’ issues as not nice. It’s not nice to say ‘no’. We have to teach young people how to say ‘no’ with love. We need to teach young people that saying ‘no’ is an act of love. We also need to teach young people to say ‘yes,’” he said.
“Say ‘yes’ to what? is a theme this year at Pius XII Newman Center. We need to remember what it is that we say ‘yes’ to when choosing to be Catholic. We say yes to many rich and beautiful things and they need to be emphasized as well,” Father Dickinson said.
“The current cultural climate presumes that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. Unfortunately, the students can’t help but absorb this way of thinking,” said Father Anderson. “The result isn’t so much that they dislike religion...they just never think about it. And in order to fill the void, most of the people in our society have gotten good at filling life with frivolous and passing things. This is a challenge, because we need them to examine the emptiness, and see it for what it is.”
“On the bright side, we do see a number of students who are dissatisfied with the emptiness of the world, and seeking the fulfillment that only Christ brings,” he said.
Each director recites stories of students who have found their way, whether Catholic or not, to that deeper relationship with God and who are eager to live out their faith.
“I love to share with people the hope that I receive from the students as I see them grow in faith, make mature decisions based on prayer about their future and see them have daily living encounters with Jesus Christ,” said Father Norfolk.
What the students say
Lawton, Iowa native Gavin Zimmerman loves having access to the chapel 24 hours a day at USD’s St. Thomas More. “There are some nights when I need to be praying and I can come right in and pray,” he said.
Lexy Antoine from Flandreau notes how important St. Thomas More is to the USD campus. “We can be on campus and invite others to come, to join us for Mass. Parents can feel good that the Holy Spirit is working here. Whoever comes, we welcome them,” she said.
“Home away from home,” said James Brule, a Sioux Falls native and O’Gorman graduate now an active participant at Pius XII at SDSU. He also appreciates the open doors, the library and other resources, as well as the chapel always being open.
“We have events of all kinds, some even outdoors like bonfires,” Brule said. “People come over to check it out.”
Kathleen Senden is also from Sioux Falls, a Washington graduate, and mentions the strong sense of community at Pius XII. “FOCUS gives us good tools to evangelize – how to have intentional conversations with others,” she said.
“I came to this campus not knowing anyone but knew I could find a place to belong here,” said Jordan Ranstrom, speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas at Northern.
Newman Centers rely on support from CFSA, annual donations from alumni and others, and the bishop’s charity hunt.
Mattern lives at St. Thomas Aquinas and has been committed to reaching out to others since his own moment of embracing a deeper faith at a Search retreat several years ago. “We try to go to others before they come to you,” he said.
The notion that future leaders are being formed is echoed in the plans of these students who talk about remaining involved in their faith wherever life leads them. In some ways, the ripple effect is already happening.
Antoine got into the routine of daily Mass and prayer last year and over the summer back home wanted to keep up the habit. “I think my mom sees my faith growing and it maybe helps hers grow too. She often joined me this summer at daily Mass.”
Said Menke, “College students are asking, ‘is there more?’ They are looking for more than the life they are leading. Newmans are growing – they are light within the darkness.”