Chapels strengthen faith

When it comes to Catholic college and university chapels, it’s almost, but not quite, anything goes.

Some are grand basilicas, built on the scale of European cathedrals; others are humble little rooms, not much larger than a closet. Most are traditional edifices, echoing the best of the Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque traditions, while more than a few reflect the contemporary architectural trends of the post-Vatican II era. Then there are those elaborately outfitted with stained glass, marble and statues, as well as those that boast of little more than a crucifix and tabernacle.

All, however, in their own way are central to the life and mission of Catholic higher education.

Ties that bind

Seeing the ties that bind Catholic university chapels to their larger mission starts with understanding that mission — a mission which dates back to the sixth century, when schools devoted to Christian learning began forming around the great cathedrals and monasteries of Europe.

The medieval Church took those schools one step further, developing the university system as we know it today and founding the first schools of higher learning in the western world.

From the beginning, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Paris and the University of Bologna, devoted themselves to the teaching of truth, striving to help students see and understand reality — the world, the cosmos and man — according to God’s design.

In that, what they ultimately desired for their students was freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense: the freedom to do whatever one wills. But rather freedom in the traditional sense: the freedom to do what God wills, the freedom to be the person God created them to be.

That tradition still lives on the campuses of many Catholic colleges and universities across America, and has shaped the chapels those schools built.

“When you take seriously the Catholic Faith as the source and object of the educational enterprise, having a beautiful chapel where that Faith can be lived and expressed naturally flows from that,” said Peter DeLuca, vice president of Administration and Finance at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. “Ultimately, the Faith is what students come here to learn, so that makes the chapel central.”

Different approaches

When it comes to how individual chapels give expression — in architecture, liturgy and devotion — to the centrality of the Faith on campus, different schools do it differently.

Some built core elements of their mission and charism into their chapels, seeking to testify to Truth himself through marble and glass.

For example, the recently restored Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., features stained-glass windows that tell the story of salvation history, as well as life-size, three-dimensional Stations of the Cross, which, according to university chaplain, Father Brian Nolan, “bring Christ’s passion and death to life” for the students.

At Villanova University in Pennsylvania, the Augustinians who founded the school and built its massive Gothic Revival chapel, St. Thomas of Villanova, emphasize the importance of repentance, conversion, prayer and study by telling the story of their order’s namesake, St. Augustine, in the stained-glass windows that line the chapel’s walls.

Today, according to Augustinian Father Joseph Farrell, Villanova’s associate vice president for mission and ministry, those lessons are a valuable teaching tool, not only when the students see them during Mass and private visits, but also when professors bring their classes into the chapel to look at the windows and to discuss their reading of St. Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, “Confessions.”

“It helps reinforce the lessons learned in the reading,” explained Father Farrell.

Something similar is accomplished at Thomas Aquinas College’s Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, completed in 2009, where the design of both the chapel and the sacred art it contains were meant to convey some aspect of the Catholic Faith to students.

According to DeLuca, the chapel’s 89-foot dome and its miniature baldacchino, modeled on Bernini’s famous baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, are meant to proclaim the college’s fidelity to Rome. Likewise, statues of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine — “the two theologians our students read the most” — stand opposite each other, one representing the active life, the other the contemplative life, and together reminding students of the two dimensions of Christian discipleship.

Architectural and artistic testimonies to the Faith, however, are only two ways that college and university chapels further the mission of Catholic higher education. And neither is the most important way.

Encounters with grace

Far more important is the role those chapels serve in bringing students to regular encounters with grace.

“When students are able to bring what they’re learning to prayer, grow in their relationship with Christ, and receive him in the Eucharist, that frees them to better embrace what they’re learning in the classroom,” said Father Sean Sheridan, TOR, the new president of Franciscan University of Steubenville.

At Franciscan, Father Sheridan said, that happens not only in the main university chapel, Christ the King, but also in the school’s perpetual adoration chapel: “Mary of the Angels of the Portiuncula Chapel.”

“The Port,” as its commonly known, is a near replica of the original chapel near Assisi rebuilt by St. Francis 900 years ago. According to Father Sheridan, St. Francis and his companions would retreat to the first “Port” to pray and seek the graces they needed for their ministry.

At Franciscan, he continued, “the Port” serves much the same purpose.

“Any time you go there, day or night, you’ll find the chapel packed with students. Many think of it as their home on campus. It’s where they go to be strengthened for the work they’re called to elsewhere.”

Gathering place

A school’s chapel is also where students go in moments of spiritual need.

Last spring, when an undergraduate student at Villanova was killed in a car accident, her classmates immediately flocked to the chapel.

“When there’s a tragedy, the chapel is the most natural place to gather,” said Father Farrell.

In the end, it’s difficult to quantify the contributions Catholic university chapels make to their schools’ mission.

Occasionally, those contributions are concrete and direct.

For instance, after Thomas Aquinas College built its $23 million masterpiece, DeLuca said more students and more members of the local community began stopping by the church for regular visits.

Christ the King Chapel is the main chapel at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Photo by Kevin R. Cooke

“Before we were almost invisible in the community,” he explained. “Now we have people who don’t even believe in God coming to our campus, just because they want to see the church.”

More often, however, the greatest contribution a school’s chapel makes is simply serving as an avenue for countless invisible graces.

“The prayers said in the chapel give life to this school,” said Father Sheridan. “We see the benefit of those prayers not just in the outpouring of graces we experience on campus, but in the work students do when they leave here. Many alumni say they trace the graces they’re given to minister and serve others back to the time they spent there.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.