Before the Cross | Campus ministry connects college students to Christ
"Catching fire" and "connecting students to Christ" are frequent expressions of Father Bill Kempf. Working with students, forming and shaping them as people and as committed Catholics, is what Father Bill enjoys most about his ministry to students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He believes that campus ministry has the potential to help students come to know, love and serve Christ. He says watching that happen and sharing in a student's experience of spiritual awakening and conversion is a source of hope and real joy.
Father Bill wears two very large hats. His time is divided between his duties as pastor of a parish with a school, St. Ann in Normandy, and overseeing the Newman Center at UMSL.
I'm fortunate to have two full-time jobs that I love," Father Bill said. "But some days it feels like no one is being well-served."
As he struggles to balance all the responsibilities that come with being a full-time pastor and a full-time campus minister, Father Bill recalls an admonition of St. Vincent de Paul to his co-workers: Do the doable, not the impossible.
What is doable for those who minister to the young Church on college and university campuses today? "Awakenings" which come from students' intellectual curiosity about the Church and about its often countercultural messages are doable, Father Bill says. Even if students don't understand, or agree with, the Church's teaching on a particular issue, students who are awake intellectually want to know more
Encouraging students to be active in their practice of the faith is not only doable, it is essential. Participation in the liturgy and the devotional life of the Church provides students with growth experiences.
Retreats are doable, Father Bill says, and so are leadership opportunities and lay ecclesial ministries (lector, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, choir, etc.) that the Newman Center offers young people -- often for the first time in their lives.
"Give students a structure in which they can succeed (and sometimes fail) and where they can learn from those successes and failures, and you quickly discover that these are today's Church leaders as well as tomorrow's leaders."
The goal of campus ministry is to develop student leaders and ministers who can go home to their parish communities -- and out into the marketplace and the civic community -- and really make a difference. "Catching fire," the enthusiasm that comes from a genuine spiritual experience, is something you can't force.
But if you provide the right opportunities, for example "Social Justice Month," retreats for beginners and for those who want to grow in their faith, vocations dinners ("Soup with Sister"), service trips and, above all Mass and the sacraments, then the Holy Spirit is given room to work.
"Just having a house, a place where kids can drop by and hang out in a safe, caring environment is HUGE," Father Bill says.
Campus ministry is a ministry of presence that affirms students in their Catholic identity as women and men made in God's image and likeness and called to follow Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. What's doable for campus ministers who work with college and university students?
"What don't we do?" Father Bill responds. "We're here to connect students to Christ, to provide them with opportunities to discover their vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ, and to help them discern God's call -- to marriage or the dedicated single life, to ordained ministry as a priest or deacon, or to the consecrated life of religious women and men."
What's doable? Evangelization -- the sharing of Christ's good news of salvation. Spiritual growth and conversion. Growth in wisdom and understanding. Active engagement in the mission and ministries of the Church.
None of these are impossible despite the many obstacles students and campus ministers face every day. Catching fire and connecting students to Christ are fundamental goals of ministry to the young Church -- in parishes, in Catholic schools and on university campuses (both Catholic and non-Catholic).
This is a great work that deserves our prayer, our commitment of time and talent, and our generous sharing of financial resources.
As Father Bill Kempf reminds us, these are today's leaders as well as tomorrow's. Let's help connect them to Christ. Let's encourage them to catch fire in the Holy Spirit and to grow in their understanding and practice of the Catholic faith.
We can't afford to neglect the fundamental responsibility to hand on our faith to the next generation. We must engage the young Church as partners with us in the evangelizing mission entrusted by the Risen Lord to His disciples as He ascended to heaven.
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