Statistics show that up to 80 percent of Catholic students stop going to Mass while they are at college.
A new initiative in the Diocese of Charleston aims to stop that trend.
Thanks to a grant from the Catholic Extension Society, the diocese is partnering with the Newman Connection, an Illinois-based nonprofit that offers support to Catholic campus ministry and Newman Centers nationwide.
Catholic campus ministry is currently active at 21 colleges and universities in South Carolina, and strong programs are available at plenty of schools outside the state. The challenge is to connect incoming freshmen with the ministry programs.
The Newman Connection collects information from Catholic high schools and parishes around the country and helps link seniors with programs at their school of choice. In the past two years, it has put more than 100,000 students directly in touch with campus ministry, according to Matthew Zerrusen, co-founder of Newman Connection.
Information packets are sent to parishes and missions, with cards that students and their families can fill out. The cards are returned to the Newman Connection, which puts each freshman in touch with his or her campus ministry. Studies show that young adults respond positively when contacted by a campus minister.
Information also can be submitted online.
In Illinois, campus ministers receive the names of Catholic students that will attend their colleges.
Roy Lanham, diocesan director of Campus Ministry at Eastern Illinois University’s Newman Catholic Center, said these names are all he gets, because state universities withhold students’ contact information from campus ministries.
“State universities have made it very difficult to access students,” Lanham said. “So the Newman Connection is giving us a slight edge in reaching out.”
From there, Lanham said he can look up students’ email addresses to reach out to them.
“Any way that we can get access to our young people going to campus is wonderful,” he said.
James Grove, director of campus ministry in the Diocese of Charleston, said the Newman Connection grant will give campus ministers the ability to personally reach out and welcome students to their new faith home.
The Newman Connection is part of an ongoing effort encouraged by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston.
“We have encouraged our youth to embrace the life and mission of the Catholic Church, yet some of our young adults are leaving the church because they have not personally encountered Christ and his unending love,” Bishop Guglielmone wrote in a letter to parishes early in May.
Lanham said there is a larger problem behind it all, though, which is that families aren’t attending weekly Mass.
The Diocese of Springfield in Illinois obtains a head count of people attending weekend Masses at all the parishes every October. Between October 2015 and 2016, the number of people attending weekend Mass dropped by about 4,000, a 7.5 percent decrease. Within the past 10 years, Catholic churches in the Springfield diocese have seen a 25 percent decline in attendance.
Lanham said it is important for the family members of student-age Catholics to “let them know you’re praying for them and continue to invite them to live their faith.”
“We cannot sit idly by and do nothing. We must help build these personal bridges of faith with our young adults,” Bishop Guglielmone said. “Catholic campus ministry is our opportunity to make that needed connection.”
Lanham said it is everyone’s role to set an example and inspire young Catholics though, not just the campus ministers.
More information about the Newman Connection is available at www.newmanconnection.com.
Knauss is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston. Staff intern Kristen Ed of Catholic Times contributed.