Ministering to 14,000 students on a college campus can be a daunting task, to say the least, especially in today’s world. However, the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Newman center is hard at work bringing as many of these students as possible into an encounter with Our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. From receiving Christ in the sacraments to encountering Him through retreats, the Catholic center on campus is offering students opportunities to become followers of Christ and to grow maturely in their Catholic faith.
One of the primary reasons the students leave the faith of their youth seems to be the impression that the faith of their childhood is, in fact, for children, explained Fr. Mike Schmitz, chaplain to the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. At college, everything seems to be “grown-up.” “There is a need to re-encounter Jesus as that emerging young adult,” Fr. Schmitz recognized. Upon arriving to the campus in 2005, Fr. Schmitz questioned, “What can I do that no one else can do?” His first answer: offer the sacraments. “The first thing was that we wanted was to make the sacraments as available as possible,” shared the chaplain. In fact, the Newman Center offers both daily Mass and daily confession, making that encounter with Christ real to the students.
A second solution to bring the young people of UMD to Christ was to expand and “maximize” retreats. These retreats serve as a way to teach so as to address the culture, but allow the young adults to live in such a way so as to create a culture as well. Fr. Schmitz asked,”Are we living the way we are professing to live?” Fr. Schmitz, staff and FOCUS missionaries to the Newman center all strive to avoid a cliquey environment, intending to provide a place of care for those present while inviting all to come and be a part of this new culture. “One person can’t do all of this,” admitted the chaplain. “These people continue to help, make it successful and even enjoyable.”
Fr. Schmitz shared that when he first came to the Newman center, he and a part-time employee were kept busy ministering and running the Newman center. “I was meeting with everyone; if anyone was involved in Newman, I was meeting with them.” When four FOCUS missionaries were assigned, the ministry was able to spread, even beyond the Newman center itself. “They’re in places I could never get to,” said Fr. Schmitz, describing that the missionaries were able to meet students in their dorms and invite them to bible studies and Mass.
Certainly, these efforts are bearing great fruits. Fr. Schmitz shared that just the other day, for daily Mass, the chapel (which can hold 100) was overflowing. While this is a great blessing, it also presents a challenge: the need for a new facility. “A lot of these kids may not come back because they did not have a seat,” Fr. Schmitz said, expressing his concern. He continued to describe a recent experience with a restaurant owner, who said, “People look out [at the restaurant] and see the full seats; I look out and see the empty seats.” While having an overflowing chapel is wonderful, admitted Fr. Schmitz, there are also 13,700 other students who don’t know the Gospel or Christ.
While the limited resources — whether it be time, money, attention, etc. — can be challenging, there are many rewards. It is a great blessing to see students, who had not otherwise encountered Jesus, have their lives transformed. Fr. Schmitz shared a story about a student who graduated last year. “When he arrived on campus, he couldn’t care less about God, couldn’t care less about the Church,” Fr. Schmitz described. However, after the student attended one of the retreats, he encountered Christ and other men who would become his best friends. This student began traveling in his faith journey, going back and forth between ministries, until he committed to serving in music ministry. “He ended so strong,” Fr. Schmitz said, explaining how this young man stuck with this ministry to the end, saying, “I am here to serve.” “That’s exactly what we want for all of our students,” described Fr. Schmitz. “He went from being a non-believer, to being a believer who was immature, to becoming a disciple, to being a disciple growing in maturity; we’re not just here to help people know how Jesus is, but to becoming mature disciples of Jesus.”
In addition to providing the sacraments and assisting with retreats, Fr. Schmitz also makes podcasts of his homilies. He told the story of how a student first requested that Fr. Schmitz record his homilies and post them as podcasts. Fr. Schmitz’s first response was one of hesitance, saying, “I don’t know, it seems sort of full of oneself.” However, after the student offered to all of the editing for him, Fr. Schmitz agreed to start recording his homilies. This lead to Lighthouse Catholic Media requesting Fr. Schmitz’s services, when one employee’s son told his father, “I’m listening to a priest!” when asked what music he was listening to. Fr. Schmitz recorded his first CD with Lighthouse, entitled “True Worship”, based on a four-part series on the Eucharist he did on campus.
Since then, Fr. Schmitz has assisted with other ministries as well, such as speaking at the FOCUS and Steubenville Youth Conferences and making videos for Ascension Press. However, his concerns for the future involve growing and investing in the campus in which he serves. “There have been incredible adults who have come forward…and asked ‘how can we help you?’” explained the priest, saying that people are coming forward with various gifts and skills. “It’s really great to hear adults in our community saying, and even around the country saying ‘we want to help your ministry.’” He shared that it can be easy to start thinking of a situation as “this is how it’s always been”. “Sometimes it just takes someone else to say…’you can grow it.’” In light of this mission, Fr. Schmitz hopes to involve more people to regularly serve the community.
I would love to see this community and ministry grow so that there’s a facility and people working here that are mission-oriented, so that when I leave…it’s clearly not driven by one person: that this is clearly the work of God, so that thousands and thousands of young people can be served in the years to come.
To see more about UMD’s Newman Center’s ministry or to listen to one of Fr. Schmitz’s homilies, visit www.bulldogcatholic.org.