One of the distinguishing factors of a faithful Catholic college is its vibrant community life. Students spend four years immersed in a truly Catholic culture, where faith and virtue are promoted and students, faculty and staff make friendships to last a lifetime.
Now faithful Catholic colleges have closed their campuses to curb the spread of COVID-19, and students are dispersed around the country—but community life has not come to an end. These colleges are taking innovative steps to continue Catholic fellowship and stay connected.
“This situation has, paradoxically, brought us closer together spiritually, helped us to be grateful for our time in the classroom, our liturgies, and our friendships. It has led us to pray more deeply and consistently for one another,” says Dr. George Harne, president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, N.H, where students receive a strong Catholic liberal arts education in a tight-knit community.
For instance, the college has added a daily Rosary at the end of online classes each weekday and invites siblings to join in, so students are getting to know one another’s families.
“Though it has long been our custom to pray at the beginning and end of each class, I confess that I had begun to take this practice for granted,” says Harne, who now visits the college’s campus chapel each day to pray before the Blessed Sacrament for students and families. “Now that we are apart, these times of prayer have become more focused as our faculty offer special intentions and we feel more intensely the separation from one another.”
At Magdalen College, there is also a special emphasis on beautiful and reverent liturgy, and the college is “looking for creative ways” to bring this liturgy to students at home.
“Holy Week and the Triduum is one of the highlights of our collegiate life together,” Harne says. “We sing the most beautiful sacred music available—chant, polyphony, classic hymns—and our servers rehearse for months. And it is all followed by an incredible feast following the Vigil to celebrate the Resurrection.”
Many faithful Catholic colleges are livestreaming Masses and providing virtual opportunities for students to gather for Bible studies, the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Stations of the Cross, and other prayers, using a variety of platforms like Zoom, Instagram Live, and Google Hangouts.
At Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, they are encouraging students to “stay connected to God and each other (virtually)” during this “time away from many of the resources and structures we typically lean on for solidarity, fellowship and communion.”
Many of the college’s clubs, activities, and programs—such as RCIA catechesis, FOCUS Bible studies, and the Hintemeyer Household Meetings—will continue online. Planned virtual events include “coffeehouse with live music, virtual movie watching with Brother James, a book club, poetry reading competitions, and virtual intramurals with online games.”
Even while students are away, they are reminded that they have a special place at the college: “A few of our on-campus students will help us to remind students of the great place they still call home under the hashtag #homesstillhere.”
At Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, the popular “faith households”—which altogether include more than 900 students—will be “using technology to still connect, pray, share their struggles, and socialize,” according to the university. Franciscan University has also released The Upper Room, a website with many resources to help Catholics grow in their faith during this time.
One of the planned initiatives of campus ministry at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, is a soon-to-be launched podcast, “QT with JC” (quality time with Jesus Christ), which is designed to engage students and Catholic young adults in general.
“We’re developing posts and sharing stories that can encourage students, bring hope and challenge them to use this season to draw closer to God by forming a daily habit of prayer and stillness, practicing rest and leisure, and cultivating family relationships,” says Nicole Labadie, UST’s director of campus ministry.
“Overall, our hope is to communicate to students that even though we are ‘social distancing,’ we are still in relationship with each other as the Body of Christ, the Church,” Labadie says.
An innovative idea at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, is a late-night spiritual gathering for students. Every Wednesday at 9:00 pm, students gather online for Lectio Divina prayer with the upcoming Sunday Gospel reading, night prayer, and other formation. The University of Dallas in Irving, Texas, is exploring ways to make an upcoming retreat an online option.
And, of course, colleges are providing virtual events that are designed primarily for wholesome fun and community building. Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, is preparing to take online its annual “Coffee House” comedy night, during which students put on skits for the college community:
“While a live version on campus is now not possible, students are being encouraged to send in recorded skits, which we will put together into a YouTube premiere in April, complete with an MC, where students will be able to watch together and interact live.”
At the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., Dean of Students Denis Kitzinger says that he wants students to “stay engaged in a common Catholic culture and community by nourishing our Catholic imagination during these challenging times.”
In the coming weeks, the college will “share Catholic cultural content… from historical events to literature, from musical compositions to artworks and film recommendations.” Kitzinger is organizing a virtual chess tournament for the college community.
Despite the best efforts of colleges to build community during these challenging times, it still doesn’t match the student experience on a faithful Catholic campus.
“All of us at [Thomas More] College recognize the inherently imperfect nature of these efforts,” says Kitzinger. “We know that our everyday physical presence with each other far surpasses any virtual initiatives we are forced to undertake for the short term.”
Thomas More’s president, Dr. William Fahey, agrees. “We’re doing the best job we can to move from what we believe is the right model—the conversational model, the residential model—to a temporary model that enables us to pursue our mission online and by remote location.”
In the coming weeks, colleges will face new and very serious challenges. The Wall Street Journal recently noted how this pandemic has “scrambled the admissions process” in higher education.
“Colleges can’t host admitted students on campus to lock in deposits, muddying enrollment projections,” the article states. “They can’t predict how many foreign students will be able to travel to the U.S. by the time classes start. And they are having trouble forecasting what financial aid students will need given the recent market rout and waves of layoffs.”
Faithful Catholic colleges are striving to adjust to the new environment. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, recently enhanced its virtual tour of campus for prospective students and has been promoting its special qualities on social media.
Great efforts will need to be made to ensure that faithful Catholic education is preserved, and educators need Catholic donors, priests, religious, and bishops to rally behind them and help in every way possible. Preserving a strong Catholic community at these colleges, as well as the truthful education, is of great importance to Catholic families and for society at large.
Photo credit: Magdalen College