I met Fr. Vu at the Student Leadership Summit put on by FOCUS and he generously gave me a few minutes of his time to discuss the work he is doing on college campuses in Alabama.

Fr. Douglas Vu serves the Diocese of Birmingham, AL as the Administrator of Saint Stephen the Martyr Catholic Chapel and College Ministries.  The chapel was built by the diocese twenty five years ago and is located next to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).  Just a few miles away are the two other college campuses Fr. Vu serves, Samford University and Birmingham Southern College where Fr. Vu offers mass weekly.  The 17,000 ft2 facility serves thirty permanent families along with about 1500 Catholic college students.  The diocese specifically built this chapel to serve as a center to all the college campuses as they are all geographically close to one another.

Do you work with FOCUS as part of your college ministry?

Last year we were able to hire two FOCUS missionaries to help us at St. Stephen chapel and this year we’ll be in partnership with them for the full team of 2 men and 2 women, so, in a sense, this is our first year of full-time FOCUS missionaries at the center.  This year also, our bishop has put funds towards securing another FOCUS team for the University of Alabama which is in the city of Tuscaloosa.  That city has a larger student population and they are well known for their football team!

Our community at St. Stephen chapel is mission.  I report to the rector of the Cathedral and we both discuss with our local bishop about our work of mission.  Our local bishop saw the need to bring Jesus Christ to the community since Birmingham and the schools are all part of a very dynamic community.  Birmingham is a medium sized city, but we have a lot of young professionals who come for medical or dental school, etc.  A lot is happening there.  For example, they are revitalizing the downtown; they are building a new ballpark and supermarket; they are really trying to bring people back to live downtown which is right where we are located.  In the near future, I see a booming population of young professionals and that will create the opportunity to serve the Catholic population who live and work downtown.

What have you seen in your experience that is drawing young people into the church, keeping them in active in their faith lives? Both university students and young professionals.

I think overall it is the formation of the person.  We all desire to live a happy, healthy, and holy life.  First, this formation comes from God through the grace of baptism when we receive the Holy Spirit in this sacrament.  The second responsibility is from families because the parents are the first teachers of children.  In baptism, they make a promise to God to raise their children faithfully.  It is important to work well together in order to make sure that the Church, the local diocese, the family, and schools (especially the parishes that have schools), are all seeking to form the human person.

At St. Stephen Chapel, we developed a model similar to seminarians’ formation.  We use four pillars of formation: human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral.  For example, when I meet with our deacon and our staff to plan activities, we always ask ourselves, “what are we trying to do here?”  If we are going to bring in a speaker and that speaker is going to talk about topic like dating, it is that good for human and intellectual formation.  It allows young people, ages 17-22, to know who they are, where they came from, and how they are getting there.  It helps them know what they need to do to prepare for marriage.

We kind of are at the end of the cycle of formation when the young person who comes to us.  Those who came from a happy, healthy, and holy family, already likely know the Lord Jesus in an intimate way. He or she have faith, not in a theory, but in a real living experience.  But for those children that come from parents that were not living the faith or were not excited about the faith, these children sometimes get to college and feel lonely and isolated.  Since the southern culture of Birmingham is less than 3% Catholic, they get a lot of pressure from their friends and peers about the Catholic faith.  They are told to “Explain your faith in 20 seconds. If you can’t do that, if you can’t grab a quick quote from Scripture, you’re done.” Sometimes they are scared of that confrontation, so they keep their faith quiet.  This means that sometimes they don’t come to mass, confession, or Bible studies anymore.

What our diocese, my staff, myself, and the FOCUS missionaries are praying and hoping is that we will bear witness by the way we live and invite more people to come back to the Catholic faith.  We say, “The Lord Jesus loves you, the Catholic faith loves you, your family loves you, let’s come back. Let’s come back to Sunday Mass, to confession, to prayer, to fellowship.  Let’s go out and celebrate our Christian lives in a wholesome way!”  To do this, we have movie nights; we have ping-pong table and pool table;  we serve meals after mass on Wednesday and Sunday nights where, on average, we serve about 30-50 college students all for free.

When they are young they like to eat and they like to hang out with their friends, so we try to be with them in that process.  In a sense that is what our college ministry is like at St. Stephen.

Thank you Father and God Bless!