Chaplains on Trial: The Future of Catholic Ministry on Campus

Harry was a freshman at the prestigious Eastern university where I work as an associate chaplain. He had attended one of the best known Catholic prep schools in the Mid-west. A handsome, intelligent, well-built fellow, he was an obvious student leader. Upon inquiring about the knowledge and practice of his faith, he assured me that he studied for 12 years in Catholic schools and that he indeed practiced his faith and considered himself a serious Catholic.

At that point, I decided to ask a few questions. He replied to a question about the Mass by saying that it was a weekly gathering of Christians where they could express their feelings for one another. He added that sometimes he went to Mass on Monday or Tuesday in order to fulfill the “Sunday” obligation. Upon being asked about the Church, he told me that it was an organization founded after the death of Christ by his apostles in order to keep his ideas alive. His reply to a question about confession was that he had received general absolution the last three years and saw no need for personal confession.

Harry is a composite of many Catholic students whom I have dealt with during the course of my pastoral work on various campuses. Ironically, often times the most difficult students to minister to are precisely those who have been educated in Catholic schools. Public and private school students tend to be much more open to true Catholic teaching and practice.

Dealing with the Harrys of the undergraduate world has convinced me that unless there is an energetic push on secular campuses both to catechize and to evangelize we are in danger of losing yet another generation of Catholics who will only be recovered for Christ and His Church at the cost of extraordinary effort and pain.

Outside of the family and seminary, the most important work for the future of the Church takes place on the college campus. The Second Vatican Council tells us:

All Christians … have a right to a Christian education. Such an education not only develops the maturity of the human person in the way we have described but is especially directed towards ensuring that those who have been baptized, as they are gradually introduced to a knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become daily more appreciative of the gift of faith which they have received. Moreover, conscious of their vocation, they should learn to give witness to the hope that is in them and to promote the Christian concept of the world whereby the natural values, assimilated into the full understanding of man redeemed by Christ, may contribute to the good of society as a whole. Accordingly, the Sacred Synod directs the attention of pastors of souls to the very grave obligation to do all in their power to ensure that this Christian education is enjoyed by all the faithful and especially by the young who are the hope of the Church. [Graviasimum Educationie, 2]

The university setting is usually the last opportunity to form the pre-adult Catholic. The convictions acquired during the college years will be the ones held by tomorrow’s leaders. In this essay, I will discuss some of the challenges and problems of campus ministry and how to be more efficient in the formation of Catholic students and in the evangelization of non-Catholics. I, of course, will be drawing primarily on my own experience in dealing with hundreds of students on several campuses. Therefore not all of the insights and suggestions may be universally valid.

“Catholics are attending colleges and universities in numbers that far exceed their percentage of the general population. It is crucial that these emerging leaders of Church and society be exposed to the best of our Catholic tradition and encounter dedicated leaders,” the American Catholic bishops observe in “Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future,” a 1986 pastoral letter. Depending on the religious make-up of the area, the chaplain will generally find the percentage of Catholics attending a secular university as high as 25 to 50 percent. Normally, Catholics tend to be the largest religious denomination on campus. The typical undergraduate will be somewhere between the ages of 17 and 22. He will be facing a variety of societal and peer pressures that come from being a minority on a secular campus. Apart from the normal process of maturation and the awakening of the intellect, the college student will be face to face, to a greater extent than ever before, with personal freedom. He will be subject to intense pressures to conform to the secular zeitgeist which places a high premium on personal autonomy and views life as a search for personal “growth” in which the abuse of alcohol, drugs, and sexuality is at least condoned if not promoted.


Classroom Pressure

In the classroom, he will face pressures of a different sort. The great majority, if not all, of the courses he will take will have a naturalistic viewpoint bereft of any supernatural outlook. The professors responsible for guiding and grading his work will be generally hostile to Christian doctrine and morals. The books that he will assigned to read and study will usually share the viewpoint of the professors who assigned them.

His leisure time will often be spent watching television or films and reading magazines and novels that will often make a mockery of his faith and portray life as made for hedonistic self-fulfillment with some time dedicated to the service of those less fortunate than himself. On the other hand, apart from the aforementioned pressures and temptations that lead to a disordered, dissipated, and selfish life, he may well encounter committed evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians well versed in Scripture and aggressive in their own proselytism. He may come to see religion as an emotional experience, a personal conviction of one’ssalvation. He may be swept off his feet and become a born-again Christian.

What does a typical young Catholic have in reserve to counter these strong pressures from all sides? In my experience over the last decade, very little. Often he may come from a family that is broken or troubled, or shadowed by contraceptive selfishness on the part of the parents. He will generally come from a small family that will not have helped him to grow in the virtues of service, responsibility, and sharing that often come from growing up in a large family. He will have very little appreciation of the fundamental role of Christianity in world culture and little background in fine literature, music, or art. On account of the present state of society, he will have a poor understanding of the meaning of life-long commitment, whether it be in marriage or the religious life where he has witnessed divorces and defections.

Finally, as regards the knowledge of the faith, he may think, upon being asked, that he has a more than adequate grasp of Church doctrine and morals given his many years of education in Catholic schools or CCD. A few questions, however, will often reveal only rudimentary knowledge of the basics, combined with a good mixture of confused notions. For whatever reason, he has been deprived of a basic  knowledge of the faith from an early age and now precisely when he has desperate need of intellectual and moral answers to the challenges and pressures around him, he comes up empty. He may be doing college level studies, but his religious education barely surpasses the elementary level. His commitment to the faith is minimal, not on account of a lack of good will on his part but really due to an almost invincible ignorance. The situation would not be quite so tragic if it were not for the fact that often those who have been deformed come prepared to insist on their own vision of Christianity rather than to learn and adhere to the teachings of Christ and His Church.

The situation might seem to be hopeless. Far from it! The natural law continues to be written in the heart of man. Many of today’s college students are showing a renewed interest in religion, both in theory and practice. Many of the students have seen clearly the effects of the hedonistic way of life on the lives of their parents and older brothers and sisters and are rejecting the moral code of relativism of the 1960s and 1970s. Students, today as usual, exhibit a great concern for the future and are capable of great ideals; many have a strong desire to change the situation of the world and even of their own immediate environment. It is up to the chaplaincy staff to provide the Catholic perspective to their search and the Catholic answer to their problems.

“On campus there is a great reservoir of energy and talent that could be utilized in the service of the Church and the world,” the American bishops tell us. If the Catholic college students of today are “baptized pagans,” it is for the chaplaincy staff to catechize them fully and help them live their Christian life fully at college in the midst of their studies and personal relations, preparing them to take on even greater responsibilities in the future with their families and professional work.

Unfortunately, the general situation of most campus ministries is troubled. Generally, they find themselves understaffed through the ever decreasing availability of qualified priests and religious. In more than a few cases, campus chaplaincies have been used as either dumping grounds or refuges for priests or women religious who have not fitted in well with their dioceses or communities. Rare is the college chaplaincy that has a coherent plan for total evangelical and catechetical work with all the Catholic students from a lively orthodox viewpoint.


Lay Ministers

Most campus ministries tend to be made up of a priest, a nun, and an increasing number of “lay ministers” who try to form a “faith community” with a relatively small number of students on campus. The students who are involved often tend to have already been involved to some extent in Church activities at their parish or high school. The activities of the chaplaincy are often divided into various committees: liturgy, social, educational, etc. Usually, the members of these committees tens to be very small in relation to the Catholic population on campus.

In addition to this small group, there may be 25-30 percent who come to Sunday Mass. Therefore, during any academic year as many as 75 percent of the Catholic population will not be reached at all by the Church.

This leads to the question of how we reach this vast but silent majority. First of all, we have to offer a goal towards which the college chaplaincy must be headed. The criteria that I suggest are quite simple. Given the sacramental nature of the Church, the bottom-line criteria to measure success and progress of any campus ministry could be the number of students who take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance during the course of the year and the number of students who attend Sunday Mass. Lest this seem to be too simple, I would only point out that college students will only make these two regular commitments to their faith if they have been taught the teaching of the Church and if they have established a personal relationship of some sort with Jesus Christ.

To help the student to be reconciled with God and the Church and to help him to remain and grow in a state of grace should be the main end of the apostolate. Divine grace, through prayer and sacraments, in collaboration with his good will, will help him not only to withstand temptation and pressure but also to give personal example and witness of his faith to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A student who makes a regular practice of Communion and Confession in college will tend to carry these practices into later life and communicate them to his family and friends.

This, by the way, is true of chaplains as well as students. The most effective guarantee of the growth and success of the college apostolate will always be the personal commitment to holiness and faithfulness on the part of the members of the staff themselves. The U.S. bishops rightly observe:

To be effective, ministers must attend to their own spiritual development. Campus ministers who are serious about their prayer life can speak openly about their relationship to God and will be able to direct others…. Thus the time is right to encourage campus ministers to renew their own spiritual lives and to facilitate the faith development of the Catholics on campus.

An enthusiastic activism may appear fruitful in the short run but is doomed to failure sooner or later. The college chaplain eventually “burns out” unless his work is based on a prudent foundation of prayer and sacrifice, along with sufficient rest and relaxation. As in apostolic times, many of the devils encountered in the university apostolate will be cast out only by prayer and fasting. Along with his life of prayer, the campus chaplain should also enlist the prayer of many others, including the intercession of contemplative communities, if he is to be truly effective in changing hearts, in making conversions.

A list of Catholic students is often made available by the university administration after registration. If it is not, a census can be taken by simply registering those students who attend the Sunday Mass the first several Sundays of the academic year. Once this list has been obtained or the census taken, the chaplain or his representatives should try to contact the students by mail or telephone, preferably the latter. In the initial contact, an appointment is set up in order to meet with the student for fifteen minutes. In my experience, it is quite rare for the student to turn down this gesture of interest and friendliness on the part of the chaplain.

The importance of these introductory meetings cannot be overemphasized. As I have already mentioned, the societal and peer pressures on the student are enormous. If he is to be able to withstand these pressures and eventually help others to lead a full Christian life, he needs the countervailing help on the part of other convinced Catholics, both clerical and lay, right from the beginning of his college career. This is a time-consuming and arduous task but one that will pay immediate dividends for individual students and for the vitality of the campus apostolate. By their junior or senior year they may be lost.


Clerical Garb, Please

On the part of the chaplain, there must be some preparation for the interview in addition to knowing the name, high school, and home town of the student. The chaplain must remember that he is speaking with the student as a representative of the Church. As such he or she will be dressed in clerical or religious garb. The student should see that the chaplain is friendly, open to listening, and truly concerned to offer the help of the Church to him. Most students have the capacity to appreciate the sincere interest of an experienced adult.

The chaplain should question them, either orally, or via questionnaire, about their religious life and practice. Have you received a good Christian formation? Do you practice your faith? What about Mass and Penance? How does your faith affect your behavior in everyday life, study, social life, professional ambitions, course of studies, etc.? How do you see your faith affecting your life in the future? It also helps to question about their family background. These questions are a great help in understanding them, in seeing what problems need to be addressed and how you can help the student. They also provide considerable self- knowledge for the student himself.

For many of them, the most difficult hurdle will be in the fact that they have not received the sacrament of penance validly in some years. The interview affords the opportunity to explain more fully the sacrament of reconciliation. The chaplain may want to give them a card or pamphlet explaining the new rite of penance and help them to make a complete examination of conscience. More than one may take advantage of the sacrament then and there. The majority, however, will at least be prepared to be reconciled in the near future; hence the importance of having a priest with regular hours in the confessional and not simply by appointment. The interview thus becomes an occasion of grace and may start the student off on the road to a surprisingly rapid spiritual development during his college years.

One of the purposes of the interview should be to elicit a commitment from the student to learn more about his faith. This may be a good time to provide him with a New Testament and a good question-and-answer catechism courtesy of the chaplaincy. If you point out to him that his knowledge of the faith should at least be on the same level as his secular studies, he usually will acknowledge that point.

The interview is also the time to inform them of the various services and ways of getting involved in the chaplaincy. Finally, they should always leave with a pamphlet or two on subjects of interest that may offer the opportunity for a second meeting in order to discuss them. There are several reasons for this. First, it will be a source of learning for them. Second, it will prolong the chaplain’s presence in their lives between appointments. Third, it may be source of contact with their roommates and friends who may also be interested.

Following this initial contact, a fairly low percent-age of students may want to follow up with spiritual direction or more involvement in the various activities of the chaplaincy, but at least, one will have taken the first step so the new Catholic on campus sees the interest of the chaplain and knows where to go and whom to see if he is interested in getting help or taking his Christian life more seriously.

There are several practices on the individual level that the chaplain can encourage in his dealings with the student. Two of them are some moments of mental prayer each day and a commitment to daily spiritual reading (primarily the New Testament along with religious classics). Through the reading of the Scripture, the student comes to know Christ and begins to model his life after His. In prayer, intimate conversation with God, this growth in the relationship will be sustained. Gradually, the chaplain will be able to help him to a fuller life of piety: daily Mass, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, examination of conscience, etc.

These practices will help him to learn to be. Rather than emphasizing the having and doing typical of our materialistic and activist society, they provide him with a practical way to face the challenge of beginning to make God the number-one priority in his life. He will see that God is indeed calling him to holiness in the midst of his surroundings, and the stronger his dedication to prayer and sacramental life, the easier and more fruitful will be his life of service to his friends, society, and the Church. From among those students who are in frequent contact with the chaplaincy or in spiritual direction will come vocations. Not only to the priesthood and religious life, but also for fully dedicated lay people. The role of the chaplaincy is to serve as an instrument of God to transmit that call to the student.

On the level of group activities, there are many different areas that can be explored. A fundamental course in basic Catholic teaching should be offered at least once a year to complement the student’s reading of his catechism. A well taught Catholic Bible study can also be of immense help to the student in understanding both sacred scripture and tradition. These courses serve not only to form the Catholic but also to introduce non-Catholics to the faith.

Volunteer work, both in local communities and in foreign countries, has become popular on many campuses. What is important here is to make sure that volunteer work with the poor, elderly, or ill be seen in the context of the Gospel and as a logical consequence of the student’s adherence to the practices of the faith. Otherwise, these social service projects can serve as a substitute for true interior life and religion. The student should be able to understand the difference between social activism and the corporal works of mercy. In our affluent society, it is very important that the Catholic be exposed to the misery that lies around us and is very often hidden. The joy of unselfish giving for the sake of Christ can help to effect a serious change in students who heretofore have been gravely affected by selfish consumerism.

Teaching catechism at local parishes or in the university community is an invaluable help toward forming college Catholics. It provides an outlet for evangelization and also prepares them to transmit the faith to their future family and current classmates. The teaching also serves as a spur to help them go deeper in their study of Christian doctrine.

The most important group activity as a follow-up to the individual one-on-one contact is a retreat. A silent weekend retreat with plenty of room for prayer and direction can help a student progress more in his Christian life than he would in a year of other types of activities. It may very well be the first time that the student has been left by himself alone, in reflective conversation with Christ. There, the meaning and purpose of his life become clearer. It is here that conversions are effected, resolutions to change are made, and vocations are found. In my experience, it is the foundational activity upon which to build a strong base of student leadership for the university chaplaincy. Retreats should be offered several times during the semester — preferably, single sex to avoid unnecessary distraction.


Transforming the Culture

The purpose of campus ministry is not simply to transform the students into other Christs, but also to transform the university itself, and ultimately, the society and the world. Students who take advantage of all that the chaplaincy has to offer should be strongly encouraged to participate fully in extracurricular activities: not only to participate but to be leaders. They are called to be men and women who exercise what Cardinal Newman called “personal influence” on their peers. They should not be clerical “groupies” but rather apostles who hear the voice of Christ calling them to launch out into the deep and baptize all nations.

Students may come and go, but faculty tend to remain; if they are fully formed and committed, they can exercise an influence for good that may easily dwarf that of the chaplain. Graduate students and, indeed, the support staff of the entire university should also have their place in a coherent and complete plan for the evangelization of a campus.

The chaplaincy should have a well-planned roster of speakers throughout the year. They should not be afraid to tackle controversial topics within the Church, always from the orthodox viewpoint with plenty of room for discussion in the question and answer period after the lecture. The speakers, generally, should be laymen and laywomen who stand out on account of their professional competence allied to a strong and active faith. Oftentimes, it is possible to arrange collaborative programs with other organizations on campus that espouse Christian ideals or morals, such as Pro-Life or Christian culture clubs. One should also encourage the full participation of the Catholic faculty in such programs. Such topics as the role of women, Catholic social teaching, the Church’s teaching on sexuality and family are all topics of current importance that can be addressed by a first-rate program of speakers. The chaplaincy should not be afraid to confront Protestant Fundamentalism on campus by arranging debates in that area.

If possible, the campus ministry center should have a well-stocked philosophical, theological, and apologetical circulating library for the students and faculty to be able to avail themselves of the collected wisdom of the Catholic tradition. Books and pamphlets should also be on sale. Given the mini-Renaissance that is taking place in Catholic publishing in this country, there are plenty of new titles being published, in addition to the reprints of many classics that will find eager readers among present day Catholic students. Naturally, care and selection in the books lent or sold is important. Most students are confused enough without having to enter into abstruse doctrinal controversies.


New Movements

The campus ministry staff should also exercise a great openness to the varieties of spirituality that abound in the Church. There are many institutions and movements in the Church that have shown themselves to be effective in dealing with college-age youth. The Charismatic Renewal, Focolare, Opus Dei, and Communion and Liberation come immediately to mind. I am sure there are many others characterized by their total loyalty to the Church and eagerness to win souls. They should be encouraged to be active on campus, coordinating and collaborating with the college chaplaincy. There should be no monopoly on providing spiritual help to the students and a great respect for the freedom of the student to find his way.

Vatican II tells us:

The pastors of the Church should not only be assiduous in their care for the spiritual life of students attending Catholic universities but, in their solicitude for the spiritual formation of all their flock, they should provide the establishment of Catholic residences and centers in the non-Catholic universities. In these, priests, religious and laymen, carefully chosen and prepared for the task, should provide permanent centers of guidance, spiritual and intellectual, for the student.

Bishops might consider the feasibility of offering courses in college chaplaincy work in the seminaries and even to prepare particularly gifted individuals for this work by sending them on to further studies, both secular and theological.

It should also be made clear that every parent who has a college-age daughter or son, or every priest who has college students as parishioners, is de facto a “campus minister” and should take this as a serious obligation.

Despite the difficulties ahead, with diligent and prayerful effort we can make everlasting progress. The harvest is great, the laborers are few. Pray, therefore, to send more laborers into the harvest.

  • Rev. C. J. McCloskey III

    Fr. C. J. McCloskey III is a Church Historian and a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. After and while earning a degree in economics from Columbia University, he worked for two major firms on Wall Street. Visit his website at

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