College students make voices heard in prayer, listening event

| October 18, 2019 | 0 Comments

Brennan Robinson, right, makes a point to Archbishop Bernard Hebda and those gathered Oct. 15 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul for a Pre-Synod Prayer and Listening Event. The focus group for college students drew 150 and was hosted by a UST campus group called Tommie Catholic. At left are Tommie Catholic members Mackenzie Hunter and Nicole Tekippe. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Milah Kourouma was caught off guard when she sat down for a Pre-Synod Prayer and Listening Event for college students at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Oct. 15.

She thought the crowd of 150 young adults, most of them college students, would dive right into expressing themselves.

But, as in every prayer and listening event being held this fall and winter in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, it began with a quiet time of focusing on God and asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

That was a pleasant surprise for Kourouma, a UST junior, who came with a friend after hearing about the gathering from a campus group called Tommie Catholic, which hosted the event.

“The whole prayer part at the beginning, I think, really helped us hone in on what the Holy Spirit wanted us to focus on tonight,” she said. “I did not know that was going to be part of it. … I think the prayer aspect of it was super, super important, and super, super, super helpful. And, I just learned a lot.”

The event was one of 11 designed  for specific focus groups in the archdiocese (priests, deacons, school principals, etc.), with 20 other events taking place at parishes through the rest of this year and in early 2020. With members of Tommie Catholic holding microphones, more than a dozen participants came up at the end to address the gathering and Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who at the beginning explained what a synod is and why the archdiocese will hold one in 2021.

Before and during the synod, the archbishop wants to prayerfully gather information and opinions from Catholics across the archdiocese that will help him develop a five- to 10-year pastoral plan.

At the Oct. 15 event, people offered praise for things like the presence of young religious in the archdiocese. They also offered suggestions to strengthen key areas such as faith formation, Catholic education and living the virtues. One young woman bemoaned what she perceived as a lack of charity in the Church and in the broader culture. That drew a response from Archbishop Hebda, who mostly listened to the comments and thanked those making them.

“That emphasis on charity has to be at the top of everything we do,” he said, adding a quote from the New Testament: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

He also heard comments from people struggling with same-sex attraction, and one person who left the Church after being raised Catholic.

“Thanks for coming and sharing that,” the archbishop said after the person finished speaking.

The emcee of the St. Thomas event, Yen Fasano, a member of St. Anne/St. Joseph Hien in Minneapolis who serves on the synod executive committee, said Archbishop Hebda and the committee wanted a focus group specifically for college students. Many are busy and don’t necessarily connect to a parish or faith community, she said. But, these young Catholics, she said, are “the hope for the future.”

“I was just wowed; I couldn’t stop smiling,” she said of the two-hour event. “I was very much impressed  by their authenticity and their honesty. … The manner in which they shared, you just felt the Holy Spirit.”

More than half of those gathered attend St. Thomas, but University of Minnesota students came as well, along with recent college graduates.

After praying at the beginning, everyone sat down in groups of up to eight people to share ideas and identify things the Church and local parishes are doing well and areas where improvement is needed.

“Based off what our table talked about, I think that there needs to be a rediscovering of the Gospel, of the heart of this faith, and from that, allowing us to walk in the truth that comes in following the Holy Spirit,” said Brennan Robinson, who graduated from Florida State University in 2017 and works for St. Paul’s Outreach while he discerns a possible calling to religious life.

Three U of M students came after they finished a fall retreat earlier in the day. Seniors Claire Jensen and Austin Peterson and junior Molly Utecht are members of a student leadership executive board and wanted to connect with students at other colleges.

“I think it’s very relevant for the archdiocese to listen to the voices of young people,” Jensen said. “It was really beautiful, especially to feel how much the archbishop genuinely wants our input and genuinely cares for college-age students.”

Peterson agreed. “I think his setting up this night tonight and requesting that all of us come and share our opinions on what direction the archdiocese should take moving forward means a lot to me,” he said of the archbishop. “I think it was a privilege to be able to give that opinion to him.”

In addition to group sharing, everyone was encouraged to put their thoughts and opinions in writing, either online or on paper forms handed out as people walked in.

Fasano said she was most impressed watching students who were asked to share publicly. They did so with “passion and articulation and respect,” she said. “But also, I felt the hope because they knew Archbishop Hebda was truly listening.”

The archbishop made that clear from the beginning, explaining the importance of listening and how it’s important for Church leaders, all the way up to Pope Francis. He quoted the pope, who recently told newly-ordained bishops that they need to hear the beating hearts of their flock.

“Tonight, I need to hear the beating of your hearts,” Archbishop Hebda said.

The young people delivered.

“People  were very honest, which was refreshing,” Utecht said, “But also, everyone was very respectful, and it seemed like we were all going for the same goal of growing the archdiocese and growing closer to the Lord together.”

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