Move over “Animal House.” Catholics are living the Greek life with Newman ideals at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and helping Catholic students grow in their faith — and not lose it — when they go off to a secular college. 

Nebraska fraternity
Phi Kappa Theta and Pi Alpha Chi members invite other Greeks to sober social events at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Courtesy photo

The university’s Catholic fraternity Phi Kappa Theta and Catholic sorority Pi Alpha Chi have combined the Greek system with Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s idea of Catholics living and learning together at non-Catholic universities. 

“Most of the students that are leaders at the university belong to a Greek fraternity or sorority,” Father Robert Matya, who is the Newman Center chaplain, told Our Sunday Visitor. “We founded this idea of a faith-filled Catholic fraternity, because we wanted to form leaders who would give a good example to the rest of campus.” 

Father Matya restarted the Phi Kappa Theta chapter at UNL (which had closed during the Great Depression) in 2005. He said a drunk student had fallen off the roof of a house, and the university’s officials were anxious for a new fraternity that would inspire the others to do better. 

“I’ve been here for seven years, and this is one of the things that I’ve been most pleased about,” Juan Franco, UNL’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said. He told OSV that having Phi Kappa Theta helps the university recruit and retain students, especially when they discover the support that exists for Catholics at the university. 

“They are a model Greek chapter,” Franco said. “They are young men I’ve known for a while. They are of the highest character and are certainly above average.”

True community

The Catholic Campus Ministry Association reports 5.5 million Catholics attend college, but only 500,000 attend Catholic institutions. And college is where many Catholics are losing their faith.  

Finding Campus Community
Julie Debowski, a junior at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Catholics at college should find a supportive community where they can live their faith and find good lifelong friends. 
 
“All the saints had beautiful friends who supported them and helped them to grow in Christ. We need a community to help us grow, because God did not create us to be alone,” she told OSV.
 
And if a campus doesn’t have a strong Catholic community?
 

A 2012 study from Georgetown University’s Berkley Center showed that about 30 percent of Catholics in the Millennial generation (18-24 years old) have left the Faith, while Millennials with no religion have grown to 25 percent of that generation. 

The men of Phi Kappa Theta and the women of Pi Alpha Chi have a mission to challenge and support each other, and to evangelize their campus. 

“We weren’t created to be a bunker where Catholic guys can go and hide,” said Matt Keller, president of Phi Kappa Theta and a sophomore double majoring in computer and electrical engineering. “We were created to be a beacon on campus to show the Greek community that this is what a Greek community is all about.” 

Julie Debowski, a Pi Alpha Chi junior majoring in marketing, agreed. “We want to show how you can have fun together and live great morals in everyday life,” she told OSV. 

Phi Kappa Theta and the Pi Alpha Chi members spend time together in many ways like their non-Catholic peers. They help each other study and excel academically. The men play sports and challenge each other in video games, and the women go to the mall together and share movie nights. 

They also hang out together in other ways by going to Mass and Eucharistic adoration, and making a group holy hour. They have group prayer and make group sacrifices. 

“A lot of times we’ll be hanging out together at 9:15 or 9:30 at night,” Keller said. “The Newman Center has Mass at 10 p.m. and someone will say, ‘Hey I’m going to go to Mass, do you want to come?’ And so we all go together.”

Lifelong bonds

Keller said the fraternity creates strong bonds of trust and lifelong friends with whom he discusses future plans, jobs, vocation, relationships, personal challenges, faith and life in general. 

Newman Center
The St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Newman Center, Phi Kappa Theta House and Pi Alpha Chi House will occupy the same block at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Courtesy illustration

Freshman Ryan Ochs said joining Phi Kappa Theta proved pivotal in his decision to stay at UNL. 

“These guys are very deep in their faith,” Ochs said. “They have good morals and they really help bring each other closer to God. I just thought, ‘This is perfect for me, it is what I wanted going off to college.’” 

Alumna Beth Ruhl told OSV she founded the sorority in 2009 under Father Matya’s direction, because she felt Catholic women needed a community similar to the Phi Kappa Theta brothers. 

“First two years at the university, you make decisions that affect your life for a very long time,” Ruhl said. “So when you have a foundational environment that is based in virtue, and you have that support, especially from women older than you who can share their faith, you are really able to grow with the other people around you.” 

Ruhl graduated in 2012, but returned to help refound the chapter in November and be its adviser.  

Ruhl told OSV that the sorority reformed as Pi Alpha Chi after the national sorority they previously had been affiliated with objected to their ties with the Newman Center and its spiritual direction. 

“Our motto is: ‘Be the person God wants you to be, and you will set the world on fire,’” she said. 

The Phi Kappa Theta and Pi Alpha Chi brothers and sisters actively engage the other Greek houses at the university, and they invite them to their “sober social” events, such as bowling, movie night, ice-skating, volleyball and dinner. 

“Just fun stuff to have guys and girls hang out in a fun environment that is safe,” Keller said. 

The Phi Kappa Theta and Pi Alpha Chi members also perform acts of service, and they are actively involved in the Newman Center. The Phi Kapps have a “Ragin’ Cajun” event that raises money for the Children’s Miracle Network, and the Pi Alphas run fundraising and diaper drives for the St. Gianna Women’s Home in Lincoln.

Spreading the Faith

Both communities accept non-Catholics into their ranks and encourage them to join. 

“We just ask they embrace the same morals and values that we hold and that the Catholic Church believes in,” Keller told OSV. 

Father Matya said a number of Phi Kapps have converted to the Faith, but he is very impressed with the vocations they are forming. 

“We’re forming good Catholic marriages — and already we have half a dozen young men that have decided to go off to the priesthood,” he told OSV. 

Father Matya said he expects his ministry to have a much bigger influence when the new Newman Center, chapel and fraternity and sorority houses are all finished. Both houses will hold 60 residents. Phi Kappa Theta’s house will be ready by August 2013, the Newman Center and Chapel will be built in December 2014, and Pi Alpha Chi’s house will be finished by 2015. 

Father Matya told OSV the facilities will have a more traditional look, and the chapel itself will be an English Gothic structure with stained-glass windows. 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York. For more information, visit newmancenter.unl.edu.