JPII Newman Center fosters conversions

Different backgrounds – different stories – but the same call to the fullness of the Catholic faith.
Five students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) joined the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil March 31 – the culmination of a journey nurtured by the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha. 
They were among 470 people entering full communion with the church across the archdiocese this Easter.
Catechumens receiving the sacraments of baptism, first Communion and confirmation were Ari Bennett, Andrew Greedy and ShyAnne Swedensky, and candidates receiving first Communion and confirmation were Chandler Brayton and Johnny Murray – all either living at or involved with the Newman Center.
Swedensky, Murray and Brayton spoke with the Catholic Voice about their experience at the center, which opened in August 2016 near the UNO campus. More than 110 students live at the center, most from UNO and some from other area colleges and universities.
“The ultimate goal of the Christian life is communion with God forever,” said Father Joseph Taphorn, pastor and director of the center and judge for the Metropolitan Tribunal for the archdiocese. “We try to provide a place where we can invite students in friendship and build a relationship that then leads them to that gift.”
The center’s faith-filled environment, including Bible study groups, retreats, community activities and daily Mass in the center’s oratory, helps residents and visiting students share and grow in their faith, Father Taphorn said.
That was the case for Swedensky, a UNO senior and business administration major who got involved at the center this school year. Although not a resident, she said she was “welcomed with open arms.”
“It’s one thing to hear about God’s love, and it’s another thing to feel it like I do at the Newman Center,” she said. “It confirmed me in becoming Catholic.”
A Council Bluffs, Iowa, native who was not raised in a religious tradition, Swedensky began exploring the Catholic faith at the encouragement of her brother, who joined the church two years ago.
She began attending Mass at St. John Church on the Creighton University campus in Omaha. But when reminded of UNO’s connection with the Newman Center, she started going to Mass there.
For Murray, an invitation from a friend to attend the 2015 SEEK Conference in Nashville, Tenn., prompted his journey to the Catholic faith. 
Hosted every other year by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), the five-day conferences give college students opportunities to build their faith through prayer, fellowship, speakers, music and encounters with Jesus through Mass and eucharistic adoration.
Seeking consolation after the deaths of both grandfathers and a relationship breakup, and discerning a direction for his life, Murray found answers during the conference and began his journey to the Catholic faith.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Murray said, especially adoration of the Eucharist. “I’ve never experienced anything so moving.”
Attending the 2017 SEEK Conference in San Antonio, Texas, confirmed his decision to become Catholic, he said. “I came back on fire and looking for ways to get more involved.”
Murray began learning about the Newman Center through friends and FOCUS missionaries serving at the center, and while living at home with his family, began taking part in Bible studies and attending Mass at the center. 
The Omaha native grew up as a Baptist and is a senior at UNO with a dual major in marketing and music entrepreneurship.
He said he was not dissatisfied with the denomination but was “not on fire for the faith” and felt he was “just going through the motions.”
The supportive environment at the Newman Center drew him and helped his conversion, he said, giving him the opportunity to be “with like-minded people from different backgrounds who are living for God, going toward a common goal.”
That kind of environment is helpful, Father Taphorn said.
“Through normal interactions between students, the friendships they make with FOCUS missionaries and other students, it creates a positive atmosphere where deeper conversations regarding faith can happen, and there can be opportunities for real conversion,” he said.
Brayton, a junior accounting major from York, Neb., said he was attracted by the fellowship at the Newman Center, and became a resident this school year.
“The atmosphere was amazing and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “I’ve applied to be an RA (resident advisor) just to try to give back the joy and acceptance this place has given me.”
Baptized Lutheran and confirmed Methodist, he spent his first two years of college searching for direction in his faith.
His mentor at UNO’s Thompson Learning Community, which provides support to students with a Susan T. Buffet Foundation scholarship, told him about the Newman Center.
Last August, he asked her for more information about the center and found that the first Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) class was scheduled the next day. Brayton took the plunge, began classes, and moved into the center a month later.
Seven students have been attending the center’s weekly, Tuesday evening RCIA classes, with five entering the church this year. 
The other two are attending classes but feel the timing is not quite right, said Father Taphorn, who teaches the classes with FOCUS missionary Elizabeth Philipps.
“We don’t hold people to an artificial timeline,” he said. “Everyone has a different journey.”
Like RCIA classes at other parishes, the Newman Center classes guide participants through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Creed, Catholic teaching on moral issues and the sacraments.
Brayton credits RCIA for helping him understand the faith.
“The classes go into depth,” he said, “and there’s literally a reason for everything. (The Catholic faith) really does make sense.”
Swedensky said the classes covering the catechism were especially helpful. “I love that book,” she said. “For any questions you have about the faith, you can find the answers there.” 
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