Parents and high school students researching Catholic colleges do well to look beyond academics to the spiritual environment of a school. While parents and students might expect to find Mass celebrated daily on Catholic college campuses along with Bible study groups and retreats, each Catholic college has a unique spiritual personality that could impact their decision.
A song in the wilderness
Young people hiking together might not strike anyone as unusual until that group breaks out into Latin hymns as they trek through the Wyoming wilderness to a mountain peak where they will celebrate Mass.
At Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., students take part in outdoor activities that expose them to God’s creation, beginning with freshman orientation. College chaplain Father James Walling accompanies students on hikes, stopping periodically to provide a brief reflection, as he did recently when he reminded the students that Samson had fought off a group of soldiers with a jawbone in similar terrain.
“We want to emphasize the outdoor experience in order to invigorate their imaginations for what they read in books,” Father Walling said.
And the Latin hymns? “We try to encourage the students to immerse themselves in the Latin language,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. The outdoor experience and the college’s focus on Latin combine to create a faith environment not found on many college campuses.
Mass is celebrated in Latin on some days and in English on others. The college has a schedule devised to allow students and faculty to attend daily Mass, said Mark Randall, vice president for institutional advancement.
“Confessions are heard daily, and adoration, vespers, compline and the Rosary are features of the weekday schedule, open to all students, employees and the general public,” Randall said.
With a student population of approximately 125 this year, plans are to keep the college small with a maximum enrollment of about 400.
Wyoming Catholic College is not affiliated with any one religious order but does emphasize Carmelite and Benedictine spirituality, said Father Walling. Students are encouraged to imitate St. Thérèse of Lisieux. “The students learn about having to do the right thing even when no one appreciates it,” he said. The Benedictine ora et labora, prayer and work, is also emphasized on campus.
Contemplatives in action
At Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., Ignatian spirituality permeates student life. According to Jesuit Father Andy Alexander, vice president for university ministry, the goal of Ignatian spirituality is to form contemplatives in action and find intimacy with God in all things.
Students are encouraged to reflect on their experiences. “We ask the students, ‘Where are you finding God in all this?’” Father Alexander said. “We are concerned with who our students become; what kind of doctors, lawyers and business people.”
A retreat for incoming freshman introduces students to Ignatian spirituality. “From the day they arrive, we tell them we are trying to form men and women of competence, conscience and compassion,” Father Alexander said.
Creighton also offers its approximately 7,000 students a variety of retreat opportunities, some unique to the institution such as Eucharistia, an Advent Catholic retreat series. “Eucharistia focuses on the Eucharistic community giving thanks and praise,” Father Alexander said. “It brings together the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery.”
Contributing to the faith environment at Creighton University is the Online Ministries website, which Father Alexander helped create. The website receives more than 20 million hits from 140 countries.
“I don’t have numbers of how many of our students use it, but it has definitely created a faith culture here on Creighton campus,” Father Alexander said.
“Fifty faculty and staff write daily reflections for the site and about 20 to 30 faculty and staff have made the online retreat [over 34 weeks] for about 10 years for a total of over 200 faculty and staff.”
Father Alexander believes students also benefit from the opportunity to attend Mass at St. John’s Parish. “By having a parish — a real parish — here, our students are invited into a normal parish life,” he said. “Students become a part of normal parish life. They see baptisms, couples renewing their vows. They’re part of the parish community.”
Students also can participate in programs like Justice Walking, designed to focus on social justice issues from the perspective of faith and action, and Hand in Hand, which matches mentally handicapped persons with students.
“Hand in Hand is a beautiful thing,” Father Alexander said. “There’s a deep spiritual component. Our students realize that mentally handicapped persons have a spirituality as well, which often involves a deep trust in God so that even though it’s expressed simply, it often involves something very profound.”
Through the opportunities offered at Creighton, students can develop the tools and training to become men and women for and with others, Father Alexander said.
Benedictine College in Atchinson, Kan., built on 1,500 years of Benedictine tradition, encourages students to recognize Christ in every moment of life and in every person. While the Benedictine influence drives the college’s mission, groups like Fellowship of Catholic University Students, St. Paul’s Outreach and Communion and Liberation also flourish on campus.
According to Benedictine Father Meinrad Miller, chaplain of the college, Benedictine colleges focus on communal worship, and the Kansas school is no different.
“At Benedictine College, we emphasize that with Sunday liturgy with monks and students together,” he told OSV.
Confessions are heard before every Mass and by appointment. Students can participate in Eucharistic Adoration on campus twice a week and perpetual adoration at the parish bordering the campus. The college’s nearly 1,500 undergraduate students and its graduate students are also invited to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks or sisters.
Community outreach programs flow naturally from Benedictine spirituality, Father Miller said. One example is the Skip-a-Meal program and the Hunger Coalition.
“Inspired by Mother’s Teresa’s visit in the early ’80s, students began to give up a meal each week to make it possible to provide meals to the poor of Atchinson,” Father Miller said. “Mother Teresa told the students you don’t have to go to Calcutta to serve the poor. Look for your own Calcutta.”
The Great Commission and the beatitudes also influence the work of Benedictine Father Brendan Rolling, director of mission and ministry at the college. He named four points that spring from them: sacramental union, scriptural literacy, spiritual formation and social mission. “All our programming is built around those four things,” Father Rolling said.
Three types of mission trips are offered by the ministry office. Pilgrimage trips include an annual journey to Rome, Assisi and Monte Cassino and the Holy Land. Service mission trips are offered to El Salvador to build houses for the poor and to Kansas City to repair homes in impoverished neighborhoods, and evangelistic mission trips have students traveling to Belize each year.
Besides the annual freshman retreat, Benedictine College offers other retreat opportunities throughout the year.
Catholic colleges provide numerous ways to nurture and inspire a student’s faith. While each institution has its own personality, the Eucharist must be central to each school’s essence as a Catholic institution. As Father Rolling said of Benedictine College, “Christ is the source and summit of our community.”
Laura Ghigliotti writes from Kansas.