It’s a common fear among Catholic parents getting ready to send their sons and daughters to college: Will their offspring stop practicing the faith while away at school? 

While a 2010 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that religious practice does drop off among some college-age Catholics — 32 percent of Catholics at Catholic schools report a decline in Mass attendance and about 50 percent report the same at non-Catholic schools — opportunities to strengthen the Catholic faith abound on campuses across the country. 

keeping the faith during college
OSV photo

“The faith is alive and young people are hungry,” said Barbara McCrabb, the assistant director for higher education in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education. “Walking with them is a privileged place and time because they are discovering not only what they will do, but how they will do it. The culture is challenging, raising personal, national and global issues, but that’s the stage of our young people that offers great opportunity to make our faith alive. 

“As a Church, we are called to find new and contemporary ways to share the message that hasn’t changed,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. 

New ways are erupting to help young people keep the faith while away at college — both secular and Catholic schools — and students, parents, parishes, campus ministries and the entire faith community are integrally involved. 

One recent innovation is the Newman Connection, an online national support system for Catholic students and Newman Centers at more than 175 colleges and universities throughout the country. Through its website, more than 20 religious orders and 35,000 people are united in prayer; its institute offers online educational video courses; and its directory connects chaplains, campus ministers and participating students throughout the country. 

“Youth are the key to our future, especially those who are college age,” Bill Zerrusen, co-founder and president of Newman Connection, said. “We need to focus in on giving them spiritual formation using their methods of communication.” 

As exciting as the Newman Connection and other campus ministries may be, parents and parishes should set a strong foundation for young adults before they leave for campus. 

“Just as parents and students have academic and financial game plans, there needs to be a spiritual game plan for students to attend a college that offers the opportunity to embrace their Catholic identity,” said Curtis Martin, founder of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). 

Part of that plan is cultivating a strong family and parish life long before it’s time to head to college, said Frank Mercadante, founder of Cultivation Ministries, which helps youth ministries prepare high schoolers for the transition to college life. 

“A strong parish and/or family faith — hopefully both are a prerequisite for kids going off to college and being committed to continuing their faith,” he said. 

What follows is a look at the ways ministries are striving to keep the faith ignited among college-age Catholics.

Laura Dodson writes from Florida. 

Training Christlike leaders

Raised with the faith and witness of “active, supportive parents who ran the parish youth group,” Curtis Martin, founder and president of Fellowship Of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) found himself far from Christ in high school. 

“I went to church, I went to youth group,” Martin said, “but I was dissatisfied with life and had a deep sense that I’d lost my way.”

A serious college roommate; the questions of a faith-based survey conducted in the school cafeteria line and finally his opening of the New Testament that his mother had sent with him to school combined to ignite a fire that has only intensified. 

“It was Luke 6:46. I heard him ask, ‘Curtis, why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I say?’” he said. “I felt like I was hit in the stomach.” 

Martin joined a Bible study, but realized that there was a need for a similar program for Catholic students. It was the foundation for FOCUS, an outreach that meets college students where they are and invites them into a relationship with Christ and the Church. 

The first FOCUS leadership retreat at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in spring of 1998 launched 20 students into Christlike leadership. To date, there are 5,000 alumni, and FOCUS is present on 60 college campuses, both secular and Catholic. So far, there have been 340 vocations — 270 to seminary and 70 to religious life — that have come out of involvement with the program. 

“What we are doing is pretty provocative. People are tempted to view us as a campus ministry program, but we are a campus ministers’ program,” said Martin, who has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. “The campus is the most pivotal place to help students fall in love with the person of Jesus Christ and then teach them to go out to others. Every Catholic is called to life-long mission.”

Uniting students in prayer and education via the Internet

A recently formed nonprofit organization is uniting college Catholic campus ministries and others in prayer, fellowship, education and support via the Internet. 

It began at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A father and son gathered with the chaplains of campus ministry at a FOCUS (Fellowship Of Catholic University Students) missionary training in July 2009 and presented their idea of an online website devoted to prayer. Almost all of them indicated their interest and the ministry — the Newman Connection and its United in Prayer program — was born. 

“We realized that they wanted the support and unity of prayer,” said Matthew Zerrusen, vice-president and co-founder of Newman Connection with his father Bill Zerrusen. They had the immediate concurrence of Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the St. John’s Newman Center director and head chaplain. 

“I know within these kids, the most important thing we have to achieve is the commitment to a prayer life — that really is what is essential,” Msgr. Ketcham told Our Sunday Visitor. “United in Prayer is what we believe and live — the power of that unity and prayer is the foundation of what we have to build.” 

The first year they started building the network of United in Prayer — students, campus ministers and religious orders united in prayer for the benefit of Newman Centers and Catholic campus ministries at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. There are more than 20 religious orders, 175 colleges and universities and 35,000 individuals who are now part of the United in Prayer ministry.  

Educational component 

It soon became clear that there was a need to engage the students more, to get them involved. Thus, came the introduction of the educational component. 

While visiting Vanderbilt University, the Zerrusens became acquainted with a program being taught by a young adult campus minister, Chad-Michael Cunningham, with the full support of the campus director, Father John Sims Baker and with the endorsement of Nashville Bishop David R. Choby. It was not long before iFacts (Institute For Advancing Catholic Thought and Studies) was available by video on the Newman Connection website. Students can take short video courses on different aspects of the faith — on the Sacrament of Penance, for example, or Church teaching on the Holy Trinity — and take quizzes on what they’ve learned, earning Newman Challenge points if they pass.  

And it was at one of the meetings that Father Baker happened to have a copy of the newly released “YouCat,” the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church. Three priests teach short segments for “Exploring YouCat” available through the Internet, using the same format as iFacts courses. 

“I’m excited about every aspect of the Newman Connection because of the potential — they’re at a place to be the unifying role,” Cunningham told Our Sunday Visitor. “It’s easy to feel isolated and no one cares. Now you can go on the website and discover the whole country is on-fire about their faith and we all have to channel that flame.”  

The Newman Connection also has a directory, allowing visitors to search for Newman Centers throughout the country. 

Last year, the website had more than 50,000 visitors — 72 percent were new and in August, when the Newman Connection launched the institute, 4,000 people watched the videos. 

National outreach 

“What started as a small prayer movement turned into a national outreach program for Newman Connection that has drawn not only students to their Newman Centers and chaplains, but has also drawn high school students going to college, their parents, teachers, parishes, religious orders and the Catholic faithful along the way,” Zerrusen told OSV. 

As the call for new evangelization grows, the Newman Connection plans to reach people through social networks, YouTube and devices such as ROKU, which will make the institute programs available on television. 

“Students arrive hungry for community, and I invite them to become part of the Catholic identity on campus,” Msgr. Ketcham told OSV. “They do and we get to see them recognize their own dignity as a child of God. We get them into small faith experiences and get to see the joy again. They become student leaders and enjoy the faith that is around them.”

Strong parish ties at home and away

The key to keeping the faith while away at college is helping young people experience the presence of God in their lives before they pack up the car to leave, says a longtime expert in Catholic youth ministries. 

“High school seniors start to drop off in their faith,” said Frank Mercadante, co-founder and executive director of Cultivation Ministries, which trains youth ministers on the parish and diocesan level to have a positive impact on young Catholics. “They slide into the American dream — a lot of money and things and they drift into that life. The time is critical. We have to do everything we can to make connections long before they go.” 

Building a strong faith and exposing high school seniors to speakers and information on how to navigate temptations — such as the new freedoms and autonomy of college life — are just a few of Mercadante’s suggestions. 

“Young people today recognize the presence of God in community, in worship, in relationship, in prayer,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “They have experienced God’s presence and they are very experiential. Faith comes through head, heart and hands. Young people are initially attracted through the heart and hands, and then they want to know with the head.” 

Armed with degrees in Christian education and pastoral ministry, Mercadante became a parish youth minister, growing the ministry from two adult leaders for 10 youth to 75 adult leaders and 500 youth in 10 years. That was in 1990, and it led to the inception of Cultivation Ministries.  

Mercadante has written four books and two small book series, including “Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens” (OSV, $19.99), to be released in April. 

Kim McMillan, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Celestine Catholic Parish in Elmwood Park, Ill., said parish involvement is key to helping youths remain in the faith.” 

“It begins with family life and the value of regularly attending Mass and being involved in the parish. Youth ministry provides the opportunity for their independence in faith — our regular 11 a.m. Sunday Mass is youth led every other month,” she said. “We stay connected to those away at college and those who don’t go away are kept on the lector schedule and as religious education catechists.” 

“The Church has to be the presence of God in people’s lives, not simply proclaiming the truth, but embodying it,” Mercadante said. “When I live in an authentic way deeply connected to the Lord, it’s going to impact other people’s lives. Our example should always leave an indelible reminder of what it is to follow Jesus — being an example that people take with them.”

Campus ministry resources

The Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA), headquartered in Cincinnati and founded as an outreach to Catholics on college campuses, has several tools that are helpful for students and parents, along with parishes and campus ministers, in bridging the transition to college.  

“Getting Ready for College” is a pilot program assisting parishes in building transitional programs for high school students to college and then back into parish life after graduation. Program materials include a Freshman Survival Guide and a Freshman Survival Study Budget. CCMA also provides a toolkit helping campus ministers to do discernment with someone considering a vocation. 

“It’s such a great time to help people find God again or to reaffirm their faith,” Father Martin Moran, the association’s executive director, told Our Sunday Visitor. “We think it’s an exciting time for the Church and what a blessing to our countless women and men stepping up and giving witness to the faith they’ve received and also willing to mentor others. The spark of the flame is not extinguished. I see the love they have — what a great chapter for the Church.”

See also: Young Catholic keeps focused on faith at MIT