Fr. Jason Lefor is a priest of the Diocese of Fargo and he has served on the campus of the University of North Dakota.  During his time there, he was the pastor of the Newman Center and worked closely with FOCUS missionary teams on campus as well as separate Catholic men’s and women’s houses.

Father, what was successful to engage college students, to bring them into the Catholic community, and to participate in the sacraments?

The most effective way is one-on-one invitation.  If you have someone who is involved already, they can reach out to their peers with the invitation and say, “I’ve had this cool experience; do you want to come and check it out?  It has really affected my life and I think that you’d really enjoy it.”  That is probably the number one most effective way to get someone involved.

What is the campus environment like?

Twenty years ago, students arriving on campus would know that they need to go to Mass and that they should check out the Newman Center.  Nowadays, even Catholic kids have no clue that they are supposed to be going to Mass.  Things have changed so radically that when the majority of the kids arrive on campus they have no connection with the Church at all and it is an open field to harvest.  You used to be able to build off of their basic relationship of going to Mass on Sundays or something like that, but that isn’t there at all anymore.

It has always been natural that when students leave home, they have new freedom and they have to decide what they want to do with it.  The difference is now they aren’t coming to college with the basic knowledge of faith, prayer, or the sacramental life.  There are a handful of home school kids and students who went to a Catholic High School who are involved and know their faith, but most students are pretty clueless that they are supposed to be going to Mass and Confession.  Most have never encountered Christ in a living way in the Gospel.

You said that you’ve started to see this transition in just the last few years?

No, I would say even before then, nearly ten or more years ago.  But, I would say in these last few years we have definitely hit a new generation point in this regard.

With the transient nature of college campuses, how do you keep the community together?  How do you build off of the ebb and flow of freshmen coming and seniors leaving?

We had great success in forming small-faith groups and communities, and we were even able to form households of men and women striving to live the Catholic faith.  It is really about one-on-one mentoring so we had older students as the accountability partners of younger ones as well as the FOCUS model of forming Bible studies.

As the priest, I was heavily involved.  I was physically present to them through activities as well as almost every night of the week, I was with a different household or Bible study.  Being with them allowed me to ask questions and use an inquiry model to build their understanding of the faith.  We also did a lot of activities like outreach trips.  For example, one of my best friends from seminary is now a pastor in Ferguson, Missouri, where all the racial tension was.  We’d take trips down there in the Fall and Spring semesters and work in the inner city.

FOCUS also had mission trips for them along with SEEK (the FOCUS national convention) every other year.  These were transformative moments in students’ lives and if they went, it would impact them deeply.  But, getting them interested and to actually go was difficult since there are so many pressures on the students from the secular world to succeed in their programs.

St. Eugene of Mazenod had this saying, “First we need them to be humans, then we have a chance to teach them to be Christians, then maybe we can get some saints out of the deal.”  That is definitely where I would say we are right now; we are in a post-human culture where men don’t know how to be men, women don’t know how to be women, and they don’t know how to interact with each other.  We’re dealing with a situation where probably 85-90% of the men coming onto campus as freshman are already addicted to pornography and masturbation, and the women aren’t far behind now.  Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t say that with women at all, but now I would say at least 50% of women themselves are caught in the pornography.

I often describe to people that it is like working in a triage unit.  By the time the students get to me, or I get a hold of them, they are pieces of human beings and you are trying to put them back together.  The FOCUS model or the household model gets students into relationship with other students as well as with Christ either in a Bible study or the sacraments.  It was especially huge if students start the relationship with the sacrament of Confession.  Once we built those models, all kinds of things started going on.  For example, we started little schola choirs, and the older students would host events for the younger students so as to bring them in and start mentoring them.

It really is just about relationship.  The average student out there is desperately lonely and they feel isolated.  They are looking for a place to belong and to give their life to something; we have to meet them in that need.

Now that you are back in parish ministry, have you been able to do anything to engage your flock in evangelization?

Everywhere I have gone, I have implemented chanted morning and evening prayer as well as chanting the Mass.  I do adult education and they come alive when they discover these things for what they are.  As I am talking to you right now, I can see nine adults who have come from work and are waiting to chant evening prayer.  I always equate it to a favorite TV program; you never miss it because you have a relationship and you can’t wait to find out the next thing.  It is the same thing with Scripture and Liturgy because when you start understanding their cycle, you are always looking forward to the next thing.

If you get people into morning prayer and evening prayer, into Eucharistic adoration, and experiencing Daily Mass, when you ask, “What is it that keeps you coming back?” They say, “I don’t really know, but I know my day isn’t complete if I don’t come or if I miss morning prayer.”  It becomes a relational thing and they start looking forward to it as well as bonding with the people around them.

We are taking the high school students to Stuebenville this summer and we did a live in a box thing so they could experience poverty.  For rural kids, taking them to the inner city and experiencing that is a huge deal.  I’ve been teaching them how to chant as well.  I teach the guys how to serve, and I teach the gals how to conduct schola.  These things help them to really take ownership of the faith, and they are excited to actually to be a part of the faith because they see that it is something more.  In our youth group, we have almost 100% attendance and even at the end of the year, they said, “Can’t we keep doing this for the summer?” I said, “Sure!”

We don’t have many mentors, father figures, and those people who are modeling the faith and inviting others in.  When people see something in which they belong, they find identity and belonging.  From that, they start to experience who Christ is through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God the Father; it is a transformative experience.

Thank you Father Lefor!