Ottawa - There are no windows in the Catholic chaplaincy office at Carleton University. The small and simple room holds a desk, a couch, one or two holy garments and an array of other materials used to rouse student interest in the word of God. The chaplaincy is underground in one of the concrete tunnels that connect the buildings on campus.

“I think the university chaplaincy was neglected for many years,” said Fr. Tim McCauley, Carleton’s chaplain.

In its early years, the chaplaincy lacked the funding and the student interest to justify any increase to its finances. When the Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) established itself on campus in 1996, its mission was barely welcome among the students.

“This has been a really tough campus,” said Kristin Konieczny, the team leader for CCO at Carleton.

But things have changed. Now many of the CCO’s events host more than 120 students. Konieczny has used a variety of methods — from surveys to cupcakes — to get the students talking about a topic that so many are hesitant to discuss: their faith.

“There aren’t many people who are courageous enough to start the conversation,” Konieczny said. “It’s kind of a taboo topic.”

But this unspoken discomfort is only one of the challenges to the faith of many university students. McCauley said there is a subtle persecution of Catholicism brought on by secularization.

Three outspoken Catholics and University of Ottawa students have seen this first-hand. Though they said their faith never wavered, it has taken one or two intellectual jabs. Tess Mc Manus, a 20-year-old theatre student, saw a multiple choice question on one of her philosophy tests with only one correct answer: “there is no God.” Although the purpose of the question, regardless of content, was to test students’ reasoning skills, it didn’t sit right with her. For Mc Manus, it was like the answer was poking fun at the faithful. 

Caitlin McCann, a third-year history student, said a lot of people feel comfortable mocking Catholicism because that’s what the media do so often.

While both students were also quick to point out that universities are usually very tolerant places, there seems to be an underlying resistance that they want to arm themselves against.

“What am I supposed to say when a professor with a PhD comes up to me and says there is no God?” Mc Manus asked in frustration.

Even without a firm answer, one student always made a point of defending his position. Brendan Mc Manus, Tess’s older brother and a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Ottawa, said that a lot of his classmates actually appreciated how he stood up for his religion. He said this was especially true of his Muslim friends.

“Although we were of different religions, we had a mutual respect for each other,” he said. “We understood the commonalities we had.”

The majority of challenges that face Catholic university students aren’t unique to Catholicism. Muslims, Jews and Hindus share in a similar university experience with many of the same religious difficulties. But for some, it also means a newfound enthusiasm.

Ehsanul Khan, a fourth-year electrical engineering student, seemed eager to share his spiritual journey with anyone interested enough to wait with him outside the small prayer room in Carleton’s university centre.

“When I came (to university) it made me stronger in my faith than when I was back home,” said Khan, who hails from Bangladesh. “When you’re back home, you just do what you’re told to do. You don’t get much time to think for yourself.”

After exploring a few different religions, he said he found that Islam was the only religion for him. He added it gave him the ability to sort out which things are important in his life.

With the help of a few tasty treats and a gentle push from the people at the CCO, many Catholic students are beginning to do it too.

As the interview with McCauley wrapped up, people began crowding into the chaplain’s office. “Do you need help setting up for Mass?” they asked him. McCauley replied, “Well, I don’t want to do it myself….” 

(Bronca, 21, is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa.)

Published in Youth Speak News