Sunday, May 24, 2009

Parishes to Bay State Catholics: "Go to UMass!"

Here is an announcement that I was somewhat surprised to read in my home parish's weekly bulletin:

Newman Catholic Center
UMass Amherst
Attention graduating high school students!

Interested in attending a college where you can continue practicing your faith with other students? Consider the University of Massachusetts Amherst where the Newman Catholic Center is active in offering social activities, events, community outreach and the opportunity to grow spiritually. Feel free to contact us for more information at or visit us online at

Having taken a look at other parish bulletins online, I gather that this notice has been widely circulated. I'm impressed to see a Newman Center at a state university reach out to students before they apply, but I'm also struck by the cultural shift reflected by announcements like this one. For much of the 20th century, the American Catholic hierarchy and many parish priests routinely warned the faithful against attending state universities; in the eyes of some, secular institutions were a hostile environment for young Catholics seeking to practice their faith. Indeed, some priests - including a few Jesuits - initially opposed the establishment of Newman Centers on secular campuses because they feared that the programs offered there would give young Catholics added incentive to attend state universities instead of Catholic ones.

By allowing the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst to advertise in their bulletins, Bay State parishes are acknowledging some important realities. Catholics have long flocked to state universities, with Newman Centers providing spiritual support to those who seek it; the "those who seek it" element is important, as many cradle Catholics start to drift away from religious practice after confirmation, particularly if they're away from home for the first time. Religious programming is seldom much of a consideration for Catholic high school students looking at colleges, regardless of whether they're looking at secular schools or Catholic ones (in my case, Georgetown's location was initially a more important factor than its Catholic and Jesuit identity). Thus, Newman Centers (and, for that matter, campus ministry offices at Catholic colleges and universities) need to make a positive effort to reach out to students. Giving Newman Centers an opportunity to reach out to prospective college applicants at the parish level could support their efforts to help young Catholics remain active in the Church once they get to campus.

On reflection, I wonder whether the role of Newman Centers on secular campuses may mirror to some degree the position of Catholic parishes in an increasingly secular society. For better or worse, we've moved beyond the point when most Catholics can simply be expected to show up on Sundays without any particular prompting or incentives from their parishes. With declining rates of Mass attendance and a larger dip in community involvement and civic engagement, parishes need to find effective ways to market themselves in order to survive. There is no single best way to do this - on the contrary, the really vibrant parishes that I've encountered fall into a number of different niches, suggesting that a variety of approaches may be taken. In all cases, though, outreach is critically important. The Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst is taking a proactive approach on this, and I wonder whether their example could be imitated elsewhere. AMDG.


At 5/24/2009 3:11 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I'm a grad student at UMass and the Newman Center here is, by far, the most effective campus ministry organization I've ever come across.

Given the secular leanings of the school and the surrounding area, the success of the center is particularly striking. The four weekend Masses are very well attended and Holy Days always draw a crowd. Due to demand, the center had to hold five Masses on Ash Wednesday this year, which is especially impressive given that the chapel is gigantic. Besides Mass, the center has an active peer ministry, vocations group, KOC, Chesterton Group, Adoration, etc.

I honestly can't say enough about what Fr. Doug and his staff are doing down there. This is exactly the type of pastoral strategy the Church needs to adopt in order to get young people excited about Catholicism again.

At 5/24/2009 4:50 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Sounds like a ringing endorsement to me - I got the sense from looking at the website that the Newman Center at UMass was very active, but I'm glad to hear that you've been pleased with what you've found there.

In terms of raw numbers, I believe that the total number of Catholics studying on big state campuses is larger (perhaps much larger) than the number studying at Catholic colleges and universities. This makes the work of Newman Centers vitally important, and it sounds like they're doing a great job at UMass.

At 5/24/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

The reality is that Catholic colleges are not always affordable. I had to work to cover every cent of my tuition, fees and books and lived at home to make it possible. The University of California was my only option for undergraduate and I continued there for graduate work. I remain ever grateful for the vibrant Newman Center communities to which my husband and I belonged: whose pastors married us (albeit under the auspices of the local parish), where my husband become a convert, which mourned his death with me. As a faculty member, I remain active with Newman where I teach.

And I have heard the homilies of the dangers of non-Catholic education, to the point where I did finally go up to my parents pastor and remark that not every faculty member at a state school or Eastern liberal arts college is a Godless heathen...

At 5/24/2009 11:32 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


You're absolutely right on the affordability issue - I was lucky to have had generous financial aid when I went to Georgetown, and I had serious concerns about picking up heavy debt when I went to law school at Notre Dame. Of course, the same issues would've been in play at any private school, but I can definitely appreciate how financial concerns can keep many students who would like to attend a Catholic college from doing so.

The old clerical prejudice against non-Catholic higher education is probably nowhere near as virulent as it once was, but I've seen it from time to time. Unfortunately, the prejudice against public primary and secondary education is still around - I occasionally run into people who insist that "good" Catholics must send their children to parochial schools, to which I always reply that I attended public schools from kindergarten to the twelfth grade and am proud to have done so. They usually act very surprised when they discover that someone who went to public schools would end up studying for the priesthood!


Post a Comment

<< Home