Pastoral Plan: Students encounter faith on the UT campus

By Kira Ciupek

From taking photos with a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis to having serious discussions with religious about Catholic teaching, students at the University of Texas in Austin were given a unique on-campus opportunity to engage Catholics in dialogue through a day-long “Encounter” event on April 12. The event was held outdoors at Gregory Plaza, one of the busiest thoroughfares on campus in the center of the university grounds. 
“The day began in front of one of the gyms on the UT campus. That, in itself, is quite an accomplishment, if you ask me,” said Marist Brother Robert Clark, campus minster at the University Catholic Center. “We were visible to thousands of people.”
Hosted by the students of the University Catholic Center (UCC), “Encounter” included opportunities for confessions, outdoor lunch and dinner, and Mass followed by Eucharistic adoration. 
“One of the goals of Encounter was to say to the students, ‘we are inviting you to experience life with us, and ultimately to experience life in Christ,’ and to do it very joyfully,” said Mark Marquez, a senior at UT and director of “Encounter.”
“That’s what excited me about the students who came out to work — they did it very joyfully. That is so attractive to people. When they see true joy and true excitement, it draws people, as Pope Francis tells us,” Marquez said.
“Encounter” was inspired by the call of Pope Francis to create a “culture of encounter,” which has recently been echoed in the diocesan Pastoral Plan entitled, “Encounter that leads to Transformation.”
Paulist Father Edward Nowak, director of Campus Ministry for the UCC, said, “The diocesan plan itself echoes the ministry of evangelization that our founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Thomas Hecker, had when he began our community in 1858. He wanted to evangelize North America using contemporary means at the time. By working with what is good about our culture we can influence our culture for the better.”
The UCC sits on the UT campus and was founded by the Paulist Fathers, who first came to Austin in 1908 with a mission to reach out to the university community. Carol Filip, development associate for the UCC, said the campus ministry sees 1,300 to 1,500 students each week at Sunday Masses, and includes 20 different student groups focused on a variety of outreaches.
Claire Howington, a senior and the public relations chair for “Encounter,” said the Catholic Longhorn community came together months in advance to prepare for the event, which included publicizing through parishes and social media, and branding with T-shirts, slogans and a logo. 
“Encounter was initiated and coordinated by students. It was their idea, certainly with the support and assistance of the pastoral staff. They had different committees working on the different aspects of the day. Some were in charge of hospitality, while others were helping with food, and other areas. It was well-organized,” said Brother Clark, who recently joined the UCC staff.
During the event, students passed out rosaries in burnt-orange and white, and offered both lunch and dinner to passersby.
“It was beautiful at dinner to look out across the plaza and see the whole area filled, and people enjoying their meals, and the dinner line so long,” Howington said.
Brother Clark, who served at the “question and answer” booth from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. said, “It was good for the students to be together in this type of evangelizing effort … For some, it was their first chance to be evangelizers in a public way.”
In addition to “question and answer” tables, there were tents set up for confession. “Most of the day there were priests hearing confession, and a small line of students waiting,” said Marquez, who has been part of the campus ministry student outreach for almost three years. 
Brother Clark concurred. “The sacrament of reconciliation was busy the entire day, which leads me to believe that this was a moment of coming home, coming back,” he said.
An estimated 300 students participated in Mass, praise and worship, and Eucharistic adoration at the end of the day.
Alison Tate, the diocesan director of Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry, said the vibrancy of any campus ministry can have an effect on students when they leave college. 
“Our diocese is home to thousands of college students, so we have a big opportunity with our campus ministry resources to invest in them as leaders in the church,” Tate said.
In 2002, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a study that explored the impact of campus ministries on the future behavior of Catholic students. CARA found that 72 percent of campus ministry participants remained actively involved in their local parishes after graduation, while 91 percent of campus ministry participants later continued the habit of giving financially to their local church. 
“Unfortunately, most adult Catholics today have not gone further than their eighth grade catechism classes,” Father Nowak said. “In some ways, students that are rejecting their childhood faith in college can be a good thing. It can be an opportunity to grow up in the faith, rather than just stay at a child-like level.” 
As an inaugural event that will most likely be repeated in coming years, “Encounter” fulfilled one of the Pastoral Plan objectives, which is to “attract, engage and inspire young people to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ,” while expanding their knowledge of the teachings of the church. 
“I want people to know that the event was very successful, and reached a ton of students who wouldn’t have been reached otherwise,” Howington said. “It was successful in the sense of giving Catholic students a chance to reach out to non-Catholic friends and invite them to the event.” She added that one of the students who visited the “question and answer” tables at “Encounter” was overheard saying, “I used to be atheist. Now I’m agnostic. But the joy of Christians is drawing me in.”