Catholic environments foster students’ faith

University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student Sarah Watson’s faith came to a standstill during her freshman year away from home.

A lifelong Catholic and member of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, she had been active in youth ministry, pastoral council and other activities while attending Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue. But then, as the only practicing Catholic in her dorm, she didn’t have anyone with whom to share her faith.

"I went to Mass on weekends, but that was really it," she said.

And, with roommates who were involved in the party scene, "… I got caught up in the whole idea of what I thought college was supposed to be."

"When the school year ended, I took a step back and looked at the friends I had made and realized that when we talked about our values and how we wanted our lives to go, we had different sets of morals," she said.

So, when plans to live with other friends her sophomore year fell through, with her mother’s encouragement, she applied to and moved into the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, which opened in August of 2016.

That’s when choosing to be with people who live their faith and immersing herself in a Catholic environment made a big difference.

At first, she was apprehensive about becoming involved in the center’s faith building activities.

Then, in January, she attended SEEK2017, a national conference for Catholic college students, with a group from the Newman Center.

With thousands of other young Catholics, she listened to numerous speakers, and took part in eucharistic adoration and Mass. That led her to experience a change of heart, she said, and she became more involved at the Newman Center and found a new group of friends with whom she now attends Mass and Bible study.

Watson said the Newman Center was something she needed. And this year, serving as a resident advisor, "… it’s not just about growing, but now my job is to help others grow."

At Catholic colleges and universities, such as Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., students also readily find relationships that nourish and sustain their faith.

"Community and friends – they’re huge," said Jordan Foos, director of campus ministry at Mount Marty. "Who we surround ourselves with influences who we become.

"I see our students living out their faith in how they care for each other, how they care for the community, how they serve others in the simple daily acts," he said.

At Mount Marty, 1,500 years of the founding Benedictine order’s tradition, "Ora et Labora," or faith and works, "is our meat and potatoes. It means faith lived daily. It’s a day-to-day spirituality – kind of a humble spirituality," he said.

Benedictine values are taught and reinforced through the school’s programs and curriculum, annual service trips, and a strong campus ministry program, Foos said.

The college also pairs students with the sisters of the nearby Sacred Heart Monastery, where they can pray and build relationships with Benedictines living the order’s charism.

"We can see the blessing of a place like Mount Marty, where there’s religious artwork all over the walls, or a Benedictine priest walking around in his habit – just these images, and the people we surround ourselves with – I think it creates a different tone and a different environment than the outside culture," Foos said.

For UNO sophomore Nick Gude, another Newman Center resident, the center’s environment helps him keep his faith ever-present in his busy college life.

As a "cradle Catholic" attending Catholic elementary and high school in Lincoln, he was always surrounded by a faith environment and was committed to daily prayer, he said.

Now in his second year as a Newman Center resident, Gude credits its Catholic environment with helping him maintain his faith through the presence of the oratory (or chapel), only steps away, where he can attend Mass and eucharistic adoration, and pray at any time.

The environment is comparable to what he experienced in Catholic schools, where there are "priests and lay people alike who are super on fire for God," he said. "You can surround yourself with people you aspire to be like, and that’s the perfect environment. They push you toward being a better person."

The Newman Center is home this year to about 110 students, who share faith and fellowship in a number of ways, including student Masses, eucharistic adoration, Bible study groups, and day-to-day fellowship.

"Environment is very important, one where the church is alive, active and real," said Father Joseph Taphorn, director and pastor of the center.

"If we create a culture where young people are encouraging one another, reaching out in friendship and hospitality, where they encounter people their age who are fun and loving, welcoming and positive, then I think the church can speak to the hearts of young adults," he said.

It’s about building relationships with God and with each other, Father Taphorn said. "They know they’re not on this journey alone."

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