Deacon Omar Gutierrez leads the introductory lecture in the yearlong series Catholicism 101 at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha. He is assigned as a deacon to the Newman Center and is president and co-founder of the Evangelium Institute. Partnering with the Newman Center, the Evangelium Institute is presenting the series to provide faith formation while answering basic questions about Catholicism. ELIZABETH WELLS

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College students find fellowship, faith formation at JPII Newman Center

When Danielle Buresh was touring college campuses, a campus minister at her high school suggested she also visit the St. John Paul II Newman Center near the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).

The graduate of V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha scheduled a visit out of respect although UNO was not on her list of potential schools.

“I toured Newman, and it felt like home. I wouldn’t have gone to UNO if not for the Newman Center,” said Buresh, who is now a senior at the university.

The Newman Center has been drawing students like Buresh by its welcoming environment as well as the opportunity for them to develop or deepen their relationship with God through catechesis or informal faith sharing opportunities.

Father Dan Andrews, pastor and director of the Newman Center, said both are intertwined in the work and success of the center, which opened its doors near the UNO campus the fall semester of 2016 and reached full capacity in its residence hall this past year.

“Human beings are made for community and friendships,” he said. “We want to belong to something, to know and be known. I just can’t hear about love, I have to experience it. That’s why you build a Newman Center community, and the friendships we form are gateways to the spiritual life.”

The center’s goals for developing the students’ spiritual life and providing faith formation are simple, said Father Andrews.

“We propose a relationship with Jesus Christ … discovering who they are in light of God’s love, and they respond to that,” he explained. “Everything we do is just a practical way to encounter Jesus.”

Those practical encounters are ways of satisfying the desire “to know” and “be known.”

A DEEPER KNOWLEDGE

There are several opportunities at JPII Newman Center for students to develop an understanding and a deeper knowledge of faith, and to help them form their Catholic identity by providing a solid foundation.

That is one reason Deacon Omar Gutierrez of the Evangelium Institute launched Catholicism 101 at the Newman Center on Sept. 26th.

Its goal is to provide intellectual formation to students who want to know their faith better and to dovetail with the Newman Center’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, said Deacon Gutierrez.

The yearlong lecture series will meet weekly in the center’s newly renovated space which houses the Newman Leadership Center, a partnership between the center and the Evangelium Institute.

The series will cover a variety of topics including “Why Religion at All?” and “Who Was Jesus and How Do We Know?” Sessions will also cover each of the sacraments.

Second-year Creighton law student, Abbey Brown, who attended the series as part of the RCIA program, said she feels empowered by what the series promises.

“I like having my own understanding of things. I’m looking forward to being independent in the knowledge I have so I feel like it’s my faith and not someone else’s,” she said, adding, “I want to be able to stand on my own two feet.”

She was one of 14 student parishioners who gathered for the introductory meeting. The students, ranging in age from 18-25, are pursuing majors spanning accounting, molecular and biomedical biology, religion, Spanish, engineering and others.

“The class provides the format for diving deeper,” said Deacon Gutierrez. “It’s up to the student to do with it what they will. It is really designed for anyone who is seeking to learn more.”

The back-to-basics content drew Ben Lundstrom, a UNO sophomore who is also a residential assistant (RA) for one of the men’s floors in the center’s residence hall. He said he sees isolation as a barrier to living one’s faith and strives to make every person at Newman feel connected.

“People need to know they have a place they belong,” he said. “I evangelize every day, but it looks different every day.

“I work to meet the 25 guys on my floor wherever they are at … inviting them out to play a game, get ice cream, into a Bible study or whatever will help them grow in their faith or in the community.”

SMALL GROUPS

Throughout the year, students also have numerous opportunities for faith formation through men’s and women’s faith sharing groups and Bible studies where participants delve into the Scriptures.

“We believe in the power of the Gospel,” said Father Andrews. “We don’t have to fret whether what we are offering is an answer to the human heart. We know it is.”

Buresh has participated in the weekly women’s group for the past several years, leading it the last two with Monica Hejkal, an apostolic oblate with the Pro Sanctity movement.

The faith sharing groups explore one theme each semester, Buresh said.

“We begin with 20 minutes of content by Monica. I help lead discussion, then we spend 20 minutes in the chapel reflecting on the discussion. We come back as a group to share graces,” Buresh explained.

This year’s focus is on taking anxiety out of discernment, including both major vocational decisions and smaller daily life choices, she said.

“As a senior … there are lots of questions,” she said. “I am using the tools learned to make decisions.”

ENCOURAGED AND ACCEPTED

Buresh credits friendships she has made at Newman with her return to Sunday Mass and her desire to live life in light of her faith.

“There was a faith community around me who encouraged me to go more regularly (to Mass freshman year) … and deepened my relationship with God,” she said.  “There’s a decent amount of loneliness (in going off to college). The Newman Center makes people feel at home because it surrounds you with such a great community.”

Being an RA and a group leader are her way of giving back.

Cale Connelly, a 23-year-old junior at UNO, also said he wants to share what others have given him. The non-traditional student plans to be an officer in the military. He came to the Newman Center in August of 2021 following a year of military service and his struggles with alcohol.

“This place is such a blessing,” Connelly said. “The Lord has really helped restore me … helped me turn from the bottle. No one’s judged me. It’s been a place where I have received so much love and have been invested in. Now I can invest in others.”

As he pursues his studies, he serves as the Grand Knight for the Newman Center’s Knights of Columbus Council.

‘TO LIVE THEIR VOCATION’

Creating a sense of community is part of the Newman Center’s overall goal, said Deacon Gutierrez.

“We know that communion is central to being Catholic,” he said. “Our work is to bring students into communion with one another and ultimately empower them to live their vocation, whatever that might be.”

And the center is succeeding in drawing more young people to priestly and religious vocations.

In 2021 one graduate entered seminary and two entered formation to become women religious, and in May 2022 five graduates entered seminaries, said Susan Gnann, the center’s director of advancement.

“Every happiness can be found in seeking out God’s will and doing it,” said Father Andrews, underscoring that all vocations are important. “Whether it’s men in seminary, women entering religious life, couples getting married (or people staying single), each is a ‘Yes, I want to do God’s will.’”