Mark Williamson is a graduate student at the University of North Dakota (UND) where is he pursuing his doctorate in biology. He has attended UND since 2008 and has been an active part of the Catholic culture on campus. We spoke with him about how he kept his Catholic faith alive and fruitful on the college campus.
How has FOCUS impacted your college career as a student?
I’ve actually had interactions with two very different sides of FOCUS. Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) started out only little more than fourteen-fifteen years ago, and it has grown very much since then. When I first came to University of North Dakota (UND), the team leader and director of FOCUS at UND was Jake Unterseher. The way he approached FOCUS and ran it was very different than what FOCUS did nationally, so it was very different than what it looks like at UND right now.
FOCUS has always been about sending disciples to make disciples and to teach those disciples to do the same; disciples making disciples. To that end, the missionaries would lead Bible studies, and so would some of those men and women that they were discipling. For my first three years in undergrad, I was in a Bible study and then in my last two years, I led a Bible study myself.
Bible studies were a weekly way to come together. I was in a men’s Bible study; we were able to came together as men and learn more about the faith while sharing in each other’s lives. It was definitely a great resource to have like minded men learning together, teaching each other, and learning to spread the Gospel.
What would you say were the pillars of your Catholicity in your college career?
Definitely the Newman Center, FOCUS, and the men’s house. When I first got here to UND, all three were intimately linked together, they all really worked together, and that made for a very powerful Catholic culture.
How did the three work together?
The men’s house was started by the FOCUS missionary Jake and the male missionaries lived at the men’s house if they were single; these missionaries were an integral part of the house. The Newman Center was obviously the place of worship and the place for the community. FOCUS would lead Bible studies and put on events.
FOCUS was really great in going out, finding the students and getting them to learn more about their faith by joining Bible Studies and coming to Mass at the Newman Center. Then the men’s house served as taking the next step. They might say, “Look, you came to Mass from the Bible study. How would you like to live in a Catholic community instead of just hanging out here, and having to go back to the dorms or another place that isn’t particularly helpful for your faith journey?” Most of those living at the men’s house were involved with FOCUS because they were the stand-up guys who were interested in living out their faith and sharing it with others. The men’s house gave them a chance to learn how to live together in Christian community, and how to handle all the practical difficulties that comes with living with someone else.
With the men’s house, were there consistent activities like communal prayer?
Yes. During weekdays if you can make it, you are expected to show up for nightly prayer. This allows us to pray together and check in with one another. We also have weekly chores and what we call weekly sacrifice – giving up something like taking a cold shower, or not hitting the snooze button. We also spend time with each other weekly to help build one another up. And every week there is a meal cooked by one of the men, a meeting, and then some sort of fraternal activity.
What activities does the Newman Center provide? Obviously it provides all of the Sacraments, but are there also events to draw in the broader college community?
The Newman Center provides the Sacraments, daily Mass, it has Bible studies available, and there are many community events. For example, there were Sunday night dinners for the students, and activities like showing the UND hockey game up on the screen or even dances. It did a good job just having ways for students to come together in community.
How did these pillars cause you to respond specifically in regards to your vocation?
My first several years of college I discerned a lot about whether I was called to the priesthood or not. There were many opportunities for retreats that I would learn about from the Newman Center, for example, discernment retreats. Also, having that priestly model of what a good pastor of souls looks like was definitely was very attractive and beneficial.
At this point in time, I am pretty certain I am not called to be a priest and pretty certain that I am called to marriage. On that end of it, I have had really great resources and opportunities to grow in understanding the vocation of marriage. There are a bunch of different parish families who are not students so there have been a lot of opportunities to interact with them, to learn what it is like to live in the vocation of marriage, and to interact with children. The men’s house primarily has been a formation house for men who go on to get married. That being the case, the set-up of the house is very practical. For example, you learn to clean up after yourself, how to cook, how to talk to your fellow housemates when you have a disagreement or don’t get along; you really learn how to deal with all that in a mature and redeemed way.
Fr. Lefor was assigned to the Newman Center and lived at the rectory attached to it. How big of a factor was he in fostering not only your own spiritual life, but the whole vibrant community of the Newman Center, FOCUS, etc.?
I would say Fr. Lefor was probably the number one factor. He was just immensely influential, and a really powerful part in my life and the lives of most of the people at the Newman Center.
I think if I could pick one thing, it would be that he helped me learn how to be a real person. I think that is how he struck a lot of people; you couldn’t walk away from Fr. Lefor without being changed. He could speak into your life and essentially tell you what to do in order to live fully alive. That wasn’t always easy, because a lot of times it was in the form of convicting me of a sin or a tendency or a way of approaching the world that wasn’t healthy and wasn’t focused on Christ.
Has anyone that you know from FOCUS or the men’s house gone on to pursue a religious vocation?
Most of the people that I lived with at the men’s house or who were FOCUS missionaries have gone on to get married and have families. However, there have been a lot of vocations to the priesthood that came out of the community. I have several good friends who are in seminary, but I’ve never actually lived with them mostly because they discerned their vocation or at least to go to seminary, before they would have moved to the house. Just off the top of my head, I can think of six or seven men that I know well who are now in seminary.
You are involved with all these families who have moved on to the proverbial “real-life.” How has their time in the Catholic community during college borne fruit now that they are away from campus?
The sense I get is that they have the maturity and understanding when to yes to things and when to say no; it is easy to overexert yourself or commit to too many things even if they are good things. A good example is a couple who just had their first child; before the child was born, both of them are very active in the parish. Now, the wife still does a lot with the choir and the husband is the Grand Knight for the Knights of Columbus, but they’ve adjusted their focus. They still have very important roles, but at the same time they know what their limits are. For example, the wife used to be the choir director, but she now simply just helps out when she can. The husband was in a lot of Bible studies and other things, but at this point in time, he is no longer in them. He still serves as a supportive and mature role model helping form young men, but not with the same time commitment as before.
How is the missionary aspect of the faith implemented in your life?
Right now I am still living at the Men’s House and I am the leader there. Part of what I do is try to reach out to young men, invite them into relationship, and invite them to live at the house. That is always a struggle because we don’t have the student involvement that we’ve had in the past and there is definitely a lot of work that goes on. I feel like when I was younger it was great because there were great older guys and I didn’t have to do much other than hang out. But now I am one of the older guys and I have to learn how to reach out even if it might feel like I am the only one doing anything. I’ve had to learn to do so in a way that isn’t just me grasping at straws or doing everything myself. I’m learning how I can pour myself out to these men in a way that is fruitful and not forceful.
Any last thoughts you would like to share?
First of all, there is a lot of change going on right now as there is a new pastor this year; that is always a big change since he will have new ways of doing things. We have a whole new FOCUS team and their dynamic is much different than when I first arrived on campus. And the culture in general has changed; students aren’t as apt to come to anyplace let alone the Newman Center to hang out since they are much more on phones and such instead of gathering in a place. Learning to get through that is always a challenge, but I would really say I’m a completely different person through all my experiences and gifts that I have been given. It has just been a very powerful way to understand myself better, how I fit in the Body of Christ, and what my role is.