‘Spirited nucleus’ of faith spurs new campus ministry

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On a Saturday evening last winter, 12 students gathered in the Goodson Chapel and Recital Hall at Shenandoah University for an event that was not only sacred but also historic. For the first time in the 140-year history of the Winchester school, there was a Catholic Mass on campus.

"To have, in a more secular environment, the heart of the faith in the chapel, which is one of the high points on campus, is a beautiful thing," said Father Stephen F. McGraw, head chaplain of Christendom College in Front Royal, who served as celebrant. Father McGraw and Father Thomas P. Ferguson, vicar general and moderator of the curia, said they believe the Mass to be the first at the Methodist-affiliated university.

The Eucharist "is the source and summit of Christian life," Father McGraw said, and having it celebrated on school grounds is "an important witness and sign of faith to the larger community."

The Mass also was a sign that the university's small Catholic campus ministry - the most recent to receive official support from the Arlington Diocese - is growing.

Like the hikers trekking the mountains bearing the university's name, the campus ministry has made progress step by step. About five years ago, Catholic student James O'Reilly laid the foundation by coordinating carpools to Sunday Mass at nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. O'Reilly is now in his fourth year at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

Last year, with the support of Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and the Shenandoah administration, the campus ministry "got a big push … when three things came together," said Father Ferguson. John Campbell, administrative director of San Damiano Retreat Center in White Post, was serving as a resource and self-described "cheerleader" to the Catholic students; Father McGraw was willing to reach out with time and the sacraments; and there were Shenandoah students eager to grow the fledging program.

Campbell said he'd always thought the development of a large campus ministry would precede the first liturgy, so the Mass last year came as a surprising, "amazing" milestone.

Now there is weekly Mass in the chapel on Sundays at 7 p.m., with up to 20 students in attendance.

The campus ministry received another boost last summer, when the diocese began funding it as it does campus ministries at George Mason University in Fairfax and the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Christendom and Marymount University in Arlington operate their campus ministries independently as part of their Catholic mission.

Shenandoah's program is not yet big enough for a chaplain, said Father Ferguson, so Father McGraw and Benedictine Father Mark Wenzinger, associate chaplain at Christendom, minister to the community. Father Stanley J. Krempa, Sacred Heart of Jesus pastor, and Father Brendan W. Bartlett, parochial vicar, step in when needed.

About 10 Christendom students have made the 23-mile drive from their campus to encourage and serve their Shenandoah counterparts. They've been altar servers and lectors and "have been befriending and mingling with students," said Father McGraw.

The experience is mutually beneficial. "It's good for Christendom students to branch out in service that flows from their faith," Father McGraw said, and it "shows them the universality of Catholicism."

The goal, however, is to have all leadership roles eventually filled by Shenandoah students.

"The leadership has been coming forward now and shows the fruit of worship on campus," said Father McGraw. "We have a small but spirited nucleus."

Along with Mass, there is a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class Sunday nights. Two students currently are participating, and another has expressed interest, according to Bri Brophy, campus ministry president.

The growing ministry also organized a question-and-answer session with Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Clare Hunter, director of the diocesan Respect Life Office, and an open forum called "Who is Jesus?"

Its most ambitious initiative, said Brophy, a junior majoring in musical therapy, was organizing two vans of students to travel to Philadelphia for the papal visit last September. Brophy said one of the biggest challenges to growth is getting the word out about the ministry and Mass, but that the trip to see Pope Francis "really raised people's awareness of us."

Brophy is excited about all the possibilities for the future. "I want the campus ministry to promote friendships and community and encourage people to talk about their beliefs in a safe haven," she said. "And I want people to deepen their faith as well as just have fun together."

Father Ferguson said he hopes the ministry will continue to grow and become "as thriving as those at Mary Washington and George Mason."

"Bishop Loverde and the diocese have a commitment to doing whatever we can to support them," he said. "The program at Shenandoah seems to be something inspired by the Holy Spirit, and I look forward to seeing it flourish."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016