USCCB report: Campus ministry needs to flourish

Is the Catholic presence on college campuses in the United States adequate to serve Catholic and non-Catholic students alike?

The findings from “A National Study on Catholic Campus Ministry 2017” released Oct. 9 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education showed we have a long way to go to.

“The Catholic Church has to look at this seriously and ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to keep the Catholic presence in the minds of young people,’” said New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri, who, as the episcopal liaison for the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA), was involved in the study. “These are the people of the future, and we have no contact with them. What does it mean to be Catholic in the lives of college students?”

What surprised him most from the survey was the lack of Catholic campus ministries at the nation’s more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities.

“Campus ministries are only located in one quarter of all major universities in the country,” he said. “That means three quarters of major universities don’t have campus ministries. So, young adults are being neglected. On junior college campuses (about 1,500), the number drops to one of every 60 campuses.”

“We have to look at all the factors of where the church is and how the church is meeting the needs of young people today,” he said. 

One factor to consider, he said, “Young people today aren’t seeing Catholic religious priests’ or sisters’ presence (on campus). It is not a part of their lives anymore. How do we recapture that fire?”

Nuts and bolts of survey

Bishop Cheri said the survey was long overdue, considering “it’s been almost 40 years since the church last looked at Catholic college ministry with the 1985 study, ‘Empowered by the Spirit.’” 

While not scientific, this survey went to approximately 2,000 campus ministers nationwide including 500 FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) to discover their formation and training as leaders; and to some 5,000 students to discover activities organized by campus ministers, if they attended, how well campus ministry prepared students for life after college and to see if their concerns were addressed. About 56 percent of those surveyed responded. 

Five recommendations were sent to the Committee on Catholic Education:

→ Revise and update the National Standards for Catholic Campus Ministry, facilitated by the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (CCMA);

→ Update and redesign the certification process for campus ministers facilitated by CCMA;

→ Develop guidelines for formation and ongoing professional development of Catholic campus ministers, to be approved by the Committee on Catholic Education;

→ Create a diversity initiative to pursue ways of cultivating intercultural competence and greater pastoral engagement of diverse populations on campus;

→ Create a community college initiative to provide pastoral presence and engagement at community colleges.

Experience with young adults

Offering more social justice outreach activities and mission trips were two ways Bishop Cheri found success in attracting college students when he worked as campus ministry director at Quincy University.

“We have to be sensitive to the fact that Catholicism is a broad religion – it’s not just praying,” he said. “Praying the rosary or novenas and all those things – it’s not that that’s not good. … Catholic social teaching has to be real.” 

When he was pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Nashville, Tennessee, near several universities, he challenged college students to action. 

“I used the energy of the young people to help the parish – I had to,” he said. “That was my base. I got them involved in tutoring elementary kids and as mentors.”

He also thinks working more closely with the growing missionary groups on campuses such as FOCUS to cull and train leaders has to be considered.

Bishop Cheri said the survey also uncovered that nonwhite college students were not adequately ministered to. One reason could be that 86 percent of campus ministers are white and non-Hispanic. The survey had little input from the black, Asian or Vietnamese community or those who are not already involved in the faith, he said. 

A suggested way to engage the diverse college population is to promote and encourage students of all races to step up, he said. Offering a diversity of programming, he thinks, will attract more students, especially minorities who say they do not fit into the current template.

“There is something wrong when we don’t reach and accept across the board,” he said.

Witnessed on campus

As CCMA episcopal liaison, Bishop Cheri travels to colleges nationwide and has seen extraordinary Catholic programming, and strong Catholic identity and presence through religious men and women. There is a priest and active prayer in every dorm at the University Notre Dame. At Benedictine College in Kansas, 200 students attend Mass daily, there are active Legion of Mary chapters for college students, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, FOCUS and St. Paul groups. The Benedictines also have a strong presence there. 

“It is a consistent witness of who we are as Catholics without apology,” Bishop Cheri said. “This is what we do. …  If you consistently do Catholic things I think people will jump on board.”

Training for campus ministers is essential and natural. Catholics are used to being trained for each sacrament (Communion, confirmation, matrimony), he said, so the church must teach campus ministers how to use the strengths and diversity of Catholicism to attract the young. 

We should take a cue, Bishop Cheri said, from St. Katharine Drexel who opened schools in areas that were not Catholic because she believed the people there needed to be formed.

“From that mindset, God doesn’t use numbers, he makes numbers count,” he said. 

“In campus ministry, I really believe we have golden opportunities to make Catholicism a way of life for everybody,” Bishop Cheri said. “I think that’s what that study says.”

He anticipates, at the next bishops’ meeting, that the secretariat of Catholic education and campus ministry association will be asked for guidelines to strengthen campus ministry. 

“One of the things that the bishops are counting on happening from this survey is that we establish criteria for good campus ministers,” he said, developing programs to educate campus ministers.

Locally, Bishop Cheri hopes to gather campus ministers and parishes serving Loyola and Xavier universities, the University of Holy Cross and the University of New Orleans and representatives from Delgado, SUNO and Dillard that don’t have campus ministers to discuss what it means to serve college students and what will it take to develop a local plan for successful campus ministry.

College students, Catholic and non-Catholic, seeking faith guidance are there, he said. 

“We really don’t have to do anything but be present,” Bishop Cheri said. “They will present their needs, and we have to deal with it. Pope Francis is right – we have to go out. Open the doors.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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