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Adding faith to the college checklist

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Maria Thielman thought she was in a good place as a Catholic when she graduated high school. So, when her parents signed her up to participate in the college night hosted by the Associates of St. John Bosco in summer 2015, she didn’t think it was necessary.

Thielman, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, was unaware that the groundwork for her future faith life was being laid that night.

The Associates of St. John Bosco, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 by Father Christopher T. Vaccaro, supports the faith journey of college students by providing solid Catholic connections and resources.

Father Vaccaro, chaplain and director of campus ministry at the University of Mary Washington, recognized a need for youth ministry during the transition from high school to college. While parish youth ministries and campus ministries are both strong, he said, the church is losing youths in between. “We’re providing a niche, connecting those two lines, (directing) people from parish youth ministry to campus ministries,” he said.

The organization ministers mainly through its summer college nights — events geared toward rising college freshmen — including fellowship, talks, small group discussions and pizza. Every participant receives a selection of spiritual books for personal use or to share with peers. Eight years ago, two evening sessions drew 15 participants, Father Vaccaro said. This summer, about 120 participants will gather over four nights.

The basis for the ministry came to him while observing sports teams at Mary Washington and how they formed tight-knit connections before the school year started. He wondered why Catholics couldn’t do the same thing.

“The faith is supposed to be a group of people who are a team. And the same team thinks the same way and supports one another,” Father Vaccaro said.

Support from this “team” is what saved Thielman’s faith as a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

“I was in a very different place,” Thielman said. “I thought I was Catholic, and I was, but I didn’t realize how not serious I was about my faith until I went to college and found myself slipping and questioning why I was doing all of this.

“We take it for granted that because we have kept the faith in high school, we can keep it in college,” Thielman said. “(But) college is a different ballgame. It’s the first time, for many of us, that we truly see who we are, when we’re removed from the influences of family. And who we are in that situation is not necessarily who we’d like to be.”

Thielman’s faith life didn’t straighten out instantly. But when she was ready to turn to God after a life-changing retreat her sophomore year, she was surprised to find she already had the connections and resources she needed to support her newfound spirituality.

The college night two years before had provided these tools. When she needed a Bible, she found one in the Associates’ book package. When navigating difficult relationships, she found another helpful book, “Men, Women and the Mystery of Love,” by Edward Sri.

“The perfect resource for me had been packed two years prior,” Thielman said. “Even if I wasn’t in a place to make use of those books and resources at the time … I still had them when I was ready to act on them.”

Thielman’s experience with the Associates inspired her to volunteer at college nights in 2019 and 2020 and share her testimony with freshmen.

“I really believe in (the Associates) and that’s why I’ve kept volunteering,” she said.

For 10 years, the Associates have supported similar faith journeys by initiating strong Catholic connections.  

Danielle Zuccaro, college division chair of the Associates, said young people tend to lose their faith in college because they don’t make efforts to reach out to campus ministries.

“We’re opening students’ eyes to what that looks like to be a Catholic on campus; where to find those resources and actually how to deal with things that come up which will affect their faith,” Zuccaro said.

The ministry is based on the mindset of St. John Bosco, the patron of youth. “John Bosco was someone who mixed fun with faith and vice versa,” Zuccaro said. “So our events are set up to be welcoming, fun, dynamic and also faith-filled.”

As the organization has grown, it has offered many opportunities for young people, including leadership positions, college nights, substantial scholarships and ministry throughout diocesan Catholic schools.

“There’s been a lot of growth in different areas, but it’s been organic,” Father Vaccaro said. “We just relied on the Holy Spirit and as things came, we entrusted it to him. We’ve operated like that for 10 years and I hope to continue operating that way.”

If you go

The final college nights this summer will be July 21 at the Lyceum of the Basilica of St. Mary, Alexandria, at 7 p.m. and on July 29 at Holy Cross Academy, Fredericksburg, at 7 p.m.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021