Catholic universities and colleges need to help students embrace their faith, a conference in Washington heard. CNS photo

Catholic colleges urged to tap into students’ faith

By  Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service
  • February 22, 2015

WASHINGTON - Catholic college presidents gathered in Washington earlier this month not only got ideas about ways to improve faculty development and fundraising efforts, they were also challenged to keep helping students embrace their faith or come to understand what it means.

That focus was front and centre at the annual gathering sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities with the theme: “Bold Vision, Courageous Voices: Forming a New Generation.”

Fr. Richard Fragomeni outlined specific challenges in imparting faith to today’s students by sharing his experiences of teaching seminarians and students often described as “nones” — those who are not religiously affiliated.

That’s how the priest divides his semesters. He teaches five courses at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he is a professor of liturgy and preaching, and he teaches three courses at Chicago’s DePaul University, run by Vincentians, where he is an adjunct faculty member in the religious studies department.

“It’s a blast,” he told the college presidents, but he admitted the role of teaching students who might not know much about faith and spirituality was initially more of a challenge.

He said he quickly realized it wasn’t the students who needed to change but that he did to be able to explain mysteries of faith to those who might be skeptical.

“I was moving across boundaries; what I thought I was going to do I could no longer do,” he said.

The DePaul students, he said, taught him not to just give data but to invite them to understand what it means and as a result he hopes he has given them a sense of wonder in the world, humanity and God’s design.

At the end of the semester when he asks students to write what they think about the grades they received, one student told him he “learned more in class than he is comfortable with” and that is what keeps Fragomeni doing this work, which he plans to never stop.

In separate panel discussions, groups of students and recent graduates spoke about how their faith has been — or was — strengthened in college and is impacting their career choices.

Kevin O’Brien, a recent graduate of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, said he was strongly influenced in his current work by the school’s commitment to social justice. He works at Catholic Charities in the Washington Archdiocese and is getting ready to join the Peace Corps to volunteer in Mozambique.

Hoang Nguyen, a senior at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles, is a nursing student and wants to do missionary nursing — which she views as her calling. She credits the example of the sisters at the school, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, for being role models of “caring for those in need.”

“If I need to go across the world, then I will go,” she said.

Another student, Maria Temples, a junior studying nutrition at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, similarly wants to serve people in need and says her experiences with alternative spring breaks and helping people in Guatemala reinforced this dream she always had.

The students said they felt nurtured in their Catholic college community through the campus ministry, teachers and school programs.

O’Brien, who always imagined he would go to a school farther away than just an hour from home, said he was amazed at the diversity the Dubuque campus offered. Temples urged colleges to continue offering broad experiences and chances for students to discover what they can do to help others.

Their reflections seemed to indicate that Catholic colleges should keep doing what they’ve been doing, but as one college president noted during the break, that simple idea sometimes gets lost in the everyday talk of enrolments and budgets.

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