Catholic faith at Hope College

As the St. Benedict Institute seeks to add a chaplain to its ranks, the leaders of this campus Catholic center at Hope College, a Christian institution of higher education in the Dutch Reformed tradition, know the ideal candidate will be someone who can form relationships with students and engage the academy in ecumenical discussion. He also should have a strong background in Scripture.

“We are guests on a Protestant campus that loves the word,” said Jared Ortiz, a Catholic assistant professor in the religion department at Hope and co-founder of the St. Benedict Institute. “And we need someone who loves Protestants.”

It sounds like a tall order, but it’s getting some interest, and one priest interviewed in April.

A Catholic space

The St. Benedict Institute was founded at the Holland, Michigan, college about four years ago by Ortiz and Jack Mulder, chairman of the philosophy department.

“Catholic students would take my church history class, and then come and say it sparked their faith and they wanted to start going to church again,” Ortiz said.

But with no official Catholic presence on campus, some would get swept up into what Ortiz called a “very dynamic” Protestant campus ministry, and others would be turned off of religion entirely by the unfamiliar expression of faith.

The St. Benedict Institute offers talks in the Catholic theological tradition, retreats, mission immersion trips and a vocation discernment program that, for the moment, meets in Ortiz’s living room.

“We wanted to provide a Catholic presence with a kind of spiritual gravity,” he said. “A robust, faithful, joyful Catholic presence.”

It operates as a ministry of nearby St. Francis de Sales Parish, part of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Carly McShane, a senior at Hope, came into the Catholic Church in February after studying religion at Hope and getting involved in the St. Benedict Institute. McShane, of Normal, Illinois, said when she studied the early Church, she found herself drawn to Catholicism. She started attending the lectures and discussions hosted by the institute.

“It gave me a sense of the practice as well as the theology,” McShane said. “What are the practical implications of the things I am studying? … It appeals to the senses of the whole person.”

‘A better Catholic now’

About 20 percent of Hope College students are Catholic, Ortiz said, but about 550 of the 650 Catholic students do not attend Mass regularly. McShane said having a sacramental presence on campus will help Catholic students develop a more mature faith. “It allows them to have a real experience of faith outside of what they grew up with,” she said.

Colin Whitehead, a senior from Walled Lake, Michigan, considered going to a Catholic college, but chose Hope after talking with Ortiz. He planned to be a youth minister, but now is preparing to spend a year teaching English in Peru as part of the Fulbright Program and is discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

“I think I’m a better Catholic now than I would be if I’d gone to a Catholic college,” Whitehead said. “Because I was encountering different views, I was questioning my own, and sometimes I didn’t know what my own were.”

“It’s genuinely distinctive on this campus to be Catholic,” Mulder said. “And that’s as it should be.” At the same time, he said, having an active Catholic community helps Hope maintain what Ortiz calls a “robust embrace of ecumenism.”

Fruits of the engagement

“If you want to be an ecumenical community, you need resources to support that,” Mulder said. “This (an active campus ministry) is what it takes for the Catholic faith to flourish.”

One example is Corey Bilodeau, a 2014 graduate of Hope College, who planned on a career in youth ministry but realized just before graduation that his call might be to the priesthood. He will enter Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in the fall.

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Rev. Dr. Trygve D. Johnson, dean of Hope College’s chapel, said the institute promotes ecumenism in which each tradition shares its unique gifts, rather than a “whitewashed pluralism.” He said this has helped Catholic students think critically about their faith and bring their gifts to their peers. They come together to encourage and support one another.

“As a Protestant pastor, I don’t want to pretend everything I do is going to serve our Catholic students in the best way,” he said. “I need to find a way to be a good partner.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.