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Father Daniel Andrews, left, director and pastor of the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, visits with students Michaela Moriarty and Sam Wilder during an Aug. 28 cookout at the center to welcome students back for the 2019-2020 school year. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Supportive community key to keeping faith in college

The statistics are alarming. 
 
Eighty-five percent of Catholic college students lose their faith during college, most within their first year, says an article on Dynamic Catholic, website of Catholic apologist and author Matthew Kelly.
 
Curtis Martin, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), puts that number over 90%.
 
The reasons vary – from disagreement with church teachings to conflicting priorities and time demands.
 
The good news is, Catholic college students can find a supportive environment to nurture their faith if they look for it – often through campus ministries at Catholic colleges and universities as well as residential and Catholic ministry centers, called Newman Centers, at non-Catholic institutions.
 
For Father Daniel Andrews, director and pastor of the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, and Father Jeffrey Mollner, chaplain to the Catholic Newman Community at Wayne State College in Wayne, a supportive community is the key.
“Faith is a very difficult thing to pursue if you’re doing it on your own, said Father Mollner, who also is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Wayne.
 
“Trying to keep and build our faith on our own – that’s not what we saw the Lord do. Our Lord always gathered people into groups,” he said.
Father Andrews agrees.
 
“The Christian faith was never meant to be lived in isolation,” he said. “The gateway to the Christian life is a surrender to him (Jesus). It’s a big step, so when we have support and the assurance that we’re not alone, it increases the chances exponentially that we can grow.”
 
That kind of support and camaraderie was instrumental in helping Blair Stuthman not only maintain, but strengthen her faith during college.
 
Stuthman, a junior at Wayne State, attended public high school and was involved in the youth group at St. Isidore Parish in Columbus, but she described her faith then as lukewarm. 
 
“I went to Mass every Sunday and never really questioned my faith, but it wasn’t a personal faith. I knew I wanted something more.”
 
She found the spiritual growth she was looking for through the Newman community, taking part in Bible study and prayer teams, and meeting weekly for spiritual formation with a FOCUS missionary.
 
Newman communities also provide support for Catholic students through daily Mass, retreats and social activities.
 
Omaha’s Newman Center, which opened in 2016 and is affiliated with the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), provides not only a spiritual environment, but residential housing for up to 164 students. The Catholic Newman Community at Wayne State serves about 50 Catholic students, holding its activities at St. Mary Church in Wayne.
 
CONSISTENCY
 
For UNO sophomore Madison Koperski, the Omaha Newman Center’s spiritual atmosphere gave her a feeling of consistency and familiarity, having attended both Catholic grade school and high school.
 
Koperski, who with the encouragement of her best friend moved into the center when it opened in 2016, has made the most of her time there and is now a resident advisor.
 
With the availability of a chapel, daily Mass and plenty of peers inviting her to pray or worship, she said she is going to Mass more often, spending more time in prayer and becoming more comfortable talking about Jesus.
 
Though a shy person, Koperski now has more confidence to share her faith with others on campus.
 
“People know me as, ‘Oh, that’s the Jesus girl’ – Oh yeah I am, that’s awesome. People outside of the Newman Center know that’s important to me,” she said.
 
NUMEROUS CHALLENGES
 
But community support is not a cure-all.
 
College students, especially those moving away from home, face numerous challenges to an active faith life, paramount among them the many new demands on their time.
 
“When they get to college there are so many other things that compete for their time and attention,” Father Mollner said, “and they’re put into an environment where it (faith) is not given a priority. It’s easier for them to deprioritize it little by little.
 
An academic climate that emphasizes achievement and future careers has something to do with that, he said.
 
“We live in a culture that doesn’t always value faith, but defines success as a worldly type of success,” he said. “This culture instills the idea of being a self-made person and that your value is determined not by who you are, but what you do. And that begins with how well you do in college.”
 
Then there’s the temptations of the party and hookup culture found at many colleges. That’s why having a group of like-minded students challenging one another to reach for a higher standard is important.
 
Ulises Orozco, now a senior at UNO, began his college career at Northern State University in South Dakota where he took part in the party life, but found it wanting.
 
“You want to fit in, but in the back of your head you’re thinking, am I supposed to be doing this?” he said.
 
After one year at Northern State, Orozco moved to Omaha to attend Metropolitan Community College, and is now finishing his bachelor’s degree at UNO while living at the Newman Center.
 
“That faith community and environment helps me stay on the right path,” he said.
 
OTHER FACTORS
 
The likelihood of college students continuing to practice their faith is already somewhat determined when they arrive on campus, based on the extent to which a personal relationship with Jesus was nurtured at home and at school, Father Andrews said.
 
“The most important factor in any young person really receiving from the heart of Jesus as they’re growing up is seeing their parents receiving from the heart of Jesus,” he said.
 
“We can go to Mass, say prayers before meals and receive the sacraments – those things have the power to deepen relationship with God. But people will know the difference, whether it’s just going through the motions or whether this is a living relationship.”
 
Attendance at Mass and frequent reception of the sacraments are important for fostering that relationship with Jesus, Father Andrews said.
 
“Go to Mass, even when you don’t feel like it,” he said. “Over time, you’ll see the way God is speaking to you. It’s really difficult to hear that if you never give yourself the chance.”
 
He also encourages students to “take a bold step” and attend a Newman Center retreat, or a FOCUS retreat or conference such as the SEEK and SLS conferences, held each year around the country.
 
A PROFOUND EXPERIENCE
 
Steve Mahoney, a senior at Wayne State, had a profound experience of Jesus during the 2017 SEEK Conference in San Antonio.
 
Although baptized in the Lutheran church, he and his family didn’t attend church or talk about God, so he didn’t know what he was missing, he said. And in high school, Mahoney began to question whether there was a God.
 
Once in college, he became friends with several FOCUS missionaries and was attracted by the joy that was evident in their lives. Their invitation led to his attendance at SEEK and eventual initiation into the Catholic Church.
 
At the conference, Mahoney said, he encountered the Lord during eucharistic adoration.
 
“During the procession I had goosebumps from head to toe. I was so convinced at that moment, I knew that Jesus is real in the Eucharist. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I wanted to join the church,” he said.
 
Father Mollner said college students like Mahoney are looking for something more in their lives – and for those who seek it, that need can be filled by experiencing a personal relationship with and love of Jesus.
 
“We find students that are struggling the most in their hearts are really craving love. They’re craving to be loved because that’s what they were created to do,” he said.

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