Even though classes at Northern Arizona University wouldn’t start until the following morning, the Flagstaff campus was filled with excited freshmen and fretful-looking parents Aug. 23.
On the mall outside the student union, organizations and groups vied for the new students’ interest and time.
And the requests won’t stop just because school has started, warned Fr. Matt Lowry during his homily at Holy Trinity Catholic Newman Center’s annual “Mass on the Grass.”
In fact, he said, much of college life is determining the most important question facing everyone: Whom will you serve?
For Fr. Lowry, part of that question was answered for him when he was assigned to be chaplain of NAU’s Newman Center this past July. He was also named associate vocations director for the Diocese of Phoenix.
For the foreseeable future, at least, he’ll be serving the students at the state university, which is exciting, but also a little daunting.
“College students force you to be intellectually honest,” the priest said. “They’re seeking the truth, which means, as a minister, I have to be very prepared.”
Newman Centers have to be a source of spiritual growth and a strong community for Catholic students at a state school who are often far from family members and their local parish, Fr. Lowry said.
“Since we don’t have a Catholic university in the diocese, the Newman Center becomes the place where students have Catholic formation,” he said. “It’s a critical time in a person’s life. They leave home and parish and they need support for their faith.”
During an Aug. 23 welcoming Mass at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, Dominican Father James Thompson encouraged the students to use the center — and, more broadly, their time in college — to grow their faith.
“I dare you to question your faith,” he said. “I’ll go even further. I demand that you question it so that you achieve an adult faith. That’s what you’re here for at the Newman Center. Own your faith and question it with integrity.”
Fr. Thompson said that through honest questioning, students would arrive at the truth, regardless of their chosen major. In a homily that echoed the thought of the great Dominican Thomas Aquinas, he said students studying the sciences, the arts and philosophy could be led to the ultimate Truth.
ASU’s Newman Center offers a myriad of opportunities for students to “own” their faith, and the list of ways they can get involved grows every year.
“The more students are involved in a community, the more retention levels go up,” said Lourdes Alonso, director of campus ministry and a past president of ASU’s Council of Religious Advisors.
She said consistent comments praise the Dominicans’ “welcoming influence and successful ability to reach students and young professionals who have left the Church or who have drifted from regular Mass attendance.”
Alonso encourages Newman Center volunteers to always make a connection with the students who might be inquiring about something simple like Mass times.
“Engage them in a conversation by asking their name, where they’re from or what they’re studying,” Alonso said.
It can all go a long way to making the students feel comfortable at the Newman Center, and that will get them coming back for more.
“Last year I went to a College Night and got plugged right into it,” said Thomas Kupitz, a sophomore at ASU. “It’s a good atmosphere of peers.”
He noted that opportunities available at the Newman Center cater to the whole individual by offering service projects and socializing, small faith sharing and retreats.
“The environment has pushed us to go and do stuff,” Kupitz said. “There are activities to keep you engaged.”
Sense of community
Up in Flagstaff, second-year student Catherine Eyer told a similar story. She began going to Sunday Mass at the Newman Center and then attended XLT, which combines adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with praise and worship music, some Scripture and preaching.
It was her experience at XLT that drew Eyer into the Newman Center. This year, she was manning the signup table before the Mass on the Grass outside the center’s chapel.
“I just like to be involved in things,” she said. “Most of the people I’ve met here are phenomenal. There’s a definite community. It’s like a close-knit family.”
Fr. Lowry hopes the Catholic community at NAU will grow even closer. He plans to do his part by “being visible” on campus and at the center. He’ll be celebrating Mass and hearing confessions daily, and he’s already spruced up the center’s front yard with some sand for volleyball games.
Fr. Lowry didn’t hide the fact that he’ll also be spending his days fostering vocations at NAU and supporting students in discernment.
“College is the time when we discern all our vocations,” he said. “The bishop was purposeful in giving me my two titles: chaplain of the Newman Center and associate vocations director.”
But for many of the new freshmen and returning students who attended Mass at either Newman Center, perhaps the most apparent thing was that even away from home, they still have a family in their brothers and sisters in Christ.
“It’s just so amazing to have a Catholic community on campus,” Eyer said.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Sun, newspaper for the Diocese of Phoenix.