Catholic fellowship leads to conversion for Omaha college student
September 17, 2020
Two years ago, Joshua Voogd reached a pivotal point in his life when he realized he was experiencing a spiritual void.
A Plattsmouth native, Voogd was baptized and attended a Lutheran church as a child, but during his adolescent years found it difficult to form a connection with God. He had other priorities in his life and was “too busy to make church a regular thing,” he said.
By the time he was a junior in high school, Voogd had drifted far enough away to consider himself an atheist.
“I got myself to a point where I made various choices that turned out to be very bad,” said Voogd, now a senior history and instrumental music performance major at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO).
“I did not maintain friendships and make new friendships as I should have,” he said. “I had distanced myself from my parents and I felt like the only person I could turn to was God. So, I had one of those, ‘God, if you’re there, can you help me?’ moments.”
It was at that point that Voogd began to turn back to Christ.
He began his journey by attending Lutheran services and taking part in an interdenominational gathering of Christians in Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t until he participated in an Abortion Dialogue Academy discussion at UNO in the spring of 2019 that he started feeling drawn to the Catholic Church.
The Abortion Dialogue Academy is an organization of students who reach out to others to discuss abortion in hopes of changing their hearts and minds and helping them adopt a pro-life perspective.
“At the time, I would have considered myself pro-choice,” Voogd said. “I enjoyed the conversation and felt very strong in my position and actually felt I did win the debate, if you will, but I found my arguments did not hold up.”
Newman Center Director and Pastor Father Daniel Andrews said Voogd’s views on abortion began to change after engaging in those “logical conversations” with pro-life Catholics representing the Abortion Dialogue Academy.
“Joshua was having conversations and just based on reasoning alone, he found that he disagreed with his own previous rationale for supporting abortion,” Father Andrews said. “It shows you that when we talk of faith, it’s just not faith. It’s faith and reason. These things go together.”
By the of fall in 2019, convinced of the Church’s pro-life position, Voogd joined UNO’s pro-life group, Maverick Students for Life.
FRIENDS AT NEWMAN
Through friends he made in that organization, Voogd was introduced to the Archdiocese of Omaha’s St. John Paul II Newman Center near the UNO campus, which serves as a residence hall for college students and a place where residents and other students gather to celebrate their faith through Bible studies, liturgies and social activities.
“I met a bunch of people who lived at the Newman Center and began building friendships that way,” Voogd said. “I started to learn more about the Catholic Church through them, though I was still fairly set on being a Lutheran.”
Then last January, Voogd attended a Catholic-sponsored pro-life dinner where he was moved by the testimony of one of the speakers, a woman who found Christ after excessive drug and alcohol use left her living on the streets of Oakland, California.
“At the lowest point, she was homeless. She asked God to help her and a woman immediately runs out of a nearby restaurant and says, ‘God told me to help you.’ I thought this is an incredible miracle that I wouldn’t hear about in any other church,” he recalled.
“God spoke to me at that moment and said, ‘That’s because the Catholic Church is the one true way,’” he said. “So, I took God on faith and thought that I should look at the Catholic Church.”
So, at the recommendation of his Newman Center friends, including Andrew Nigro and Bible study leader Aaron Hoff, Voogd began taking Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes and attending Mass regularly at the Center.
Voogd felt more at home in the Church the more he learned about Catholicism and the more time he spent interacting with friends at the Newman Center.
“It gave me a greater sense of my moral responsibility to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and the issues I need to understand to make sure I’m living consistent in what I believe in and to what God’s will is,” he said.
His reception into the Church was scheduled for Easter at the Newman Center, but was pushed back to Pentecost because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The postponement of his first Communion and confirmation turned out to be a blessing, Voogd said, because during the coronavirus lockdown, he had an opportunity to read Scott Hahn’s book, “The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth,” which gave him a fuller understanding and appreciation of the Eucharist.
“It gave me a complete enough understanding to where I could fully receive Christ and know what I’m committing to Christ when I receive him in the Eucharist,” Voogd said.
Father Andrews said Voogd’s story is an example of what can happen when a person keeps the door open to God in pursuit of the truth. He also pointed to the role fellowship at the Newman Center played in Voogd’s conversion.
“People have the right to hear the Gospel,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter how old you are, everybody needs somebody to take an interest in them in terms of friendship.”
“As you move along with that, when people feel like they can belong and it feels like home, you can start to ask the bigger questions – What is life all about? Why am I here? What’s my purpose? Eventually, it all points to God,” he said.
“Seeing him being involved in his faith and flourishing here at the Newman Center has brought me so much joy,” said Nigro, who served as Voogd’s confirmation sponsor.
Nigro says Voogd, who is active in Newman Center activities, has also been an inspiration to other students.
For his part, Voogd said his experiences at the Newman Center and his conversion to the Catholic faith have filled the spiritual void in his life – and an intellectual one, too.
“There’s been a lot of peace that’s come about from understanding what God has given me,” he said. “In growing my understanding of the faith, one of the great things I’ve found is it is such a complete view of the world – there’s so much sense and logic to it.”
NEWMAN CENTERS HELP COLLEGE STUDENTS DEEPEN FAITH
For more than a century, Newman Centers and affiliated clubs, inspired by the writings of English Cardinal St. John Henry Newman, have provided Catholic students at secular colleges and universities around the world with campus ministry centers to practice and celebrate their faith.
“Many universities aren’t (Church) affiliated or don’t promote any religion, but the students there are still seeking that,” said Father Daniel Andrews, director and pastor of the St. John Paul II Newman Center, which serves Catholic students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and other Catholic students.
Father Andrews said the center, which opened in 2016 near UNO’s Ak-Sar-Ben campus, has expanded and strengthened the Archdiocese of Omaha’s longstanding commitment to serving UNO’s Catholic community.
“We have engaged at the diocese in ministry at UNO for decades, but now with this facility we’re able to reach a lot more students because we have a dedicated space, which is much more visible,” he said. “It’s a fitting home for students all across the city.”
Newman Centers provide students with opportunities to explore their faith with fellow students through discussion, Bible study, Mass, eucharistic adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation, service projects and social activities. The UNO Newman Center includes a chapel, library, common study areas and a residence hall that houses 136 students.
At Wayne State College, the Newman Center is less structured than at some larger schools and is housed at St. Mary Church. It’s the oldest active student group on campus. Students meet at St. Mary’s or find rooms on campus.
Newman Center Chaplain Father Jeffrey Mollner said weekly activities include a Thursday night holy hour with adoration, confessions and social time, and a student Mass at 7 p.m. at the parish. There are also opportunities for Bible study, discipleship groups, individual spiritual direction and two yearly retreats, he said.
Father Mollner believes Newman Centers play an important role in keeping Catholic students, most of whom are living away from home for the first time, connected to their faith.
“I think it’s vitally important,” he said. For a good number of students, “this is how they maintain their faith, but for a lot of them, this is how they find their faith.”
The Newman Center-St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) serves a Catholic population of more than 4,000 in a parish atmosphere. It attracts around 2,000 students to weekend Masses, held in a new chapel built in 2015.
The center provides opportunities for Catholic Cornhuskers to fulfill spiritual and social needs through liturgy, Bible studies, weekly catechesis, retreats, community service, mission opportunities, community nights, musical events, intramural sports and other informal activities.
UNL Catholics who want to enjoy the “Greek life” while celebrating their faith also can do so through membership in the Pi Alpha Chi Catholic Sorority or the Phi Kappa Theta Catholic Fraternity.
Father Robert Matya, chaplain at the UNL Newman Center, said the program for UNL Catholics has existed for 112 years. The center also draws students from Nebraska Wesleyan University.
The Newman Center “is very important,” Father Matya said. “They don’t have their parents here telling them to go to Mass, and they have to make decisions on their own.”