In this week’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas interviews Father Joseph Taphorn, pastor and director of the St. John Paul II Newman Center near the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), about the vision of the center and its increasingly successful work of helping students build relationships with Jesus Christ.
Q: Father Taphorn, I would like you to talk a little bit about your campus ministry work on the UNO campus, and particularly about the St. John Paul II Newman Center. The creation of the center has provided us new opportunities in terms of the dimension of campus ministry it makes possible, but also marked a new chapter in your priesthood as you have taken on the role of pastor and director.
Thank you, Archbishop. Yes, the Newman Center really is a great gift. I see it as the fruit of prayer. What we are doing now with college students builds upon the great work done over many years by people like Monsignor Dunne and the Apostolic Oblates, and in our earlier partnership with St. Margaret Mary Parish. In more recent years, FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, also became great partners with us in sending missionaries and starting Bible studies.
We saw great growth in our community over recent years, and thus saw a need for a structured facility – something that would support the work of the Holy Spirit. It has been a great gift to watch the Newman Center come to life, to see more students being engaged in the faith, and to see the facility function in the way that we imagined that is really bearing great spiritual fruit.
Q: A Newman Center is just a building, in one sense, but the people of the archdiocese have been very supportive of our desire to build such a facility here that could serve as a place where students encounter Jesus. How do you facilitate that specifically at JPII Newman?
When we created this center, we wanted to really emulate, in many ways, the qualities that were particular to our patron, St. John Paul II, in the way he spent time with young people and led them deeper in the life of the faith.
We have three principal spaces in the Newman Center: The central one is the oratory, or ‘house of prayer’ (essentially a chapel), which is a very beautiful space for worship; we have generous common areas where students can gather together to study, to recreate and spend time with one another; and we have a 162-bed residence we call Newman Hall. Students live together in apartment-style living, which is a very important component to what we do because it allows us not to just see students once or twice a week, but every day.
Q: I have the chance to visit the Newman Center occasionally and I’m always happy to come into that community because there is a certain energy there. What I notice, beyond the good work that you and the staff and FOCUS missionaries do, is that the students have a care for one another. It seems evident that students are being invited to focus on how the Lord is leading them to grow in maturity and to lead virtuous lives, and that they are then offering encouragement to each other.
Our resident assistants (RAs) are chosen not just to enforce the rules, but really to mentor other students. In many ways, they’re the eyes and ears of myself and our professional housing staff. We obviously have our own encounters with residents too, but it really is beautiful to watch the RAs engage other students and grow in leadership.
Really, there are lots of opportunities to serve and take on leadership. We have a parish council, because we are a parish in the archdiocese. We have students engaged in liturgy and music and reading, serving. All kinds of different things. It’s really fun to mentor and encourage that kind of leadership role in the church.
Q: It is beautiful to see that, and to see students begin to imagine the vocation to which the Lord might be calling them. We know the Lord has a beautiful plan for each of them. They are looking toward the future and becoming formed in the faith, but also receiving a university education so that they can dedicate their life to something good. We hope to encourage them to really listen for the call of our Lord and begin to think how they might serve the church.
That’s definitely an important piece of what we do there. One of the priorities we have is to teach students how to pray. We have a strong emphasis on prayer with a daily holy hour, the availability of spiritual direction, daily confession, daily Mass. We offer talks and retreats on prayer.
In many ways I take confidence and encouragement from the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict. You may remember, Archbishop, when he came to the U.S. and the bishops asked him to comment on the so-called vocation crisis. I’m paraphrasing, but his answer was essentially, if you teach young people how to pray, you can trust that they will know what to do with their vocation. They’re going to find their vocation if you teach them how to pray.
That really is an emphasis for us, and we’re seeing the fruit. Again, it’s the Lord’s work, but we’ve had three weddings already so far in the oratory. We’ve got more weddings scheduled, and engagements. Several students have gotten engaged in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the oratory. We had one young man go to the seminary after graduating last spring, and we have another individual in process now who will go this coming spring.
Q: I think we see the opportunity in this season for an even more basic sacramental encounter with the Lord and a basic understanding of the Christian vocation as you’re able to welcome new members into the church at Easter time. It’s the joy of every pastor, I think, to see the community of faith growing. You have that experience this Easter time. We’re having this conversation during Holy Week, but talk a little bit about what you’re anticipating in terms of welcoming new members at the Easter Vigil.
Yes, it is wonderful. We never had an RCIA program specifically for the Newman Center before because we were not a parish before. Occasionally, a student or two joined the church when we were affiliated with St. Margaret Mary, but it may have been one in a given year or one every couple of years. We now have five students who will be either baptized or received into the church this Easter.
I think this is due to the fact that we have a gathering place and that many more students are involved in the community life. ... It’s really just made everybody happy. The other students in the hall and in our parish community were involved and are very excited about it. They’ve become friends with these individuals, to watch their own journey of faith. All five are very unique individuals, their stories are unique and the way they found us is different for each one. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch them come together through our weekly classes, and meetings, and mentorship. We have students acting as their sponsors. It’s been beautiful to watch that unfold and we’re very excited about celebrating Easter Vigil with them.
Q: The challenge for us in all our parishes regarding the RCIA is, beyond the moment of the initiation at Easter time, to be able to incorporate the new members into a community of believers and have them find a place where they can have friendships but also use their gifts and continue to grow in faith. It seems like you have a good opportunity for that at the Newman Center.
That is a good point. I remember studying this a number of years ago when I worked with an RCIA team early in my priesthood, and I know that quite a few people come into the church at Easter and then after a year or two, stop attending Mass or otherwise become disengaged. We are mindful of that, and I do think we have a unique opportunity because of the intimacy of our community. There’s a certain intensity and beauty about living together.
Q: Thanks very much for taking the time to share about the St. John Paul II Newman Center. We are all very proud of it. I am very grateful to the people of the archdiocese who have provided the resources to make this possible, and thankful to you for your ongoing leadership.
Thank you, Archbishop, for the invitation for me to serve as pastor there and for your leadership. The students love it when you visit, and you are always welcome.