New leadership sparks unprecedented student involvement in U of M campus ministry

| Jessica Weinberger | September 7, 2016 | 10 Comments
University of Minnesota senior Dani Shupe, front, listens during a leadership training day Aug. 21 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota campus. Shupe and other student leaders came to help organize events and programs for the upcoming school year. Shupe will be directing the fall retreat. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

University of Minnesota senior Dani Shupe, front, listens during a leadership training day Aug. 21 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota campus. Shupe and other student leaders came to help organize events and programs for the upcoming school year. Shupe will be directing the fall retreat. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On an average weekend at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, 1,200 students gather together — not to attend a Gopher sporting event or house party — but to attend one of three Sunday Masses at St. Lawrence Church and Newman Center on the northwestern edge of Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood.

Thanks to Campus Ministry Director Brother Ken Apuzzo, a strong partnership with St. Paul’s Outreach and a group of passionate student leaders, a vibrant Catholic culture has emerged at the mega public university where nearly 47,000 students study each year.

Since Brother Ken’s appointment two years ago through the Brothers of Hope religious community headquartered in Boston, daily Mass attendance has increased from less than 10 students to nearly 70. Priests previously heard 30 minutes of confessions each week — now it’s 30 minutes per day. Fifteen students attended campus ministry’s 2014 fall retreat, while last year’s retreat topped more than 100 participants. More than 20 students came into the Church on Easter in 2015, and there’s a greater interest in religious vocations.

To spark this dramatic resurgence, Brother Ken leaned on his experiences at other large public universities like Florida State University in Tallahassee and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to form a trained student leadership team and develop a solid vision for reaching out to the masses on campus, many being millennials who didn’t grow up in the Church.

“You have to be very proactive and find ways to enter into their world on campus and make the first step toward the Church — toward Jesus — an easy, natural and organic one,” he said.

That process often begins at the student-led Gopher Catholic Night. Each Tuesday, more than 100 students head to the student center to listen to presentations, hear testimonies, participate in small groups and praise and worship as they focus on deepening their faith, enriching their prayer life and ultimately, building relationships.

“The goal is for them to be in relationship with one another and us to support that because they can go out and reach each other in places we can’t,” St. Lawrence pastor Father Jon Vander Ploeg said.

A strong Catholic presence in a public university setting is crucial, said Father Vander Ploeg, as students are making decisions each day that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

“Here [at a public university], you’re encountering the frontline of the world, and there’s no secret in that,” he said. “You know where the battle lines are and where the issues are.”

A faith family away from home

Kaly Kohns, 21, serves as president of Catholic Students United, the official student group at the Newman Center. The Plymouth native who attended Holy Name of Jesus in Medina helps oversee the various campus ministry committees, Gopher Catholic Night and events like the recent Labor Day barbecue outreach event in the freshman superblock of dorms.

Kohns said that CSU has helped her feel part of a faith family away from her home parish and equipped her with the tools needed to live and study alongside people of different faiths.

“Because of CSU, I’ve been able to have very open and honest conversations with my friends,” she said. “They can meet me where I’m at, and they respect the different ways I see things or how I explain my faith.”

Kohns, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, also noted her expanded prayer life, which now includes lectio divina, Liturgy of the Hours and a greater understanding of how to pray the rosary. During this Year of Mercy, she looks forward to participating with the other student leaders who have taken an oath to be “missionaries of mercy” and look for opportunities to evangelize throughout the school year.

Junior Ali Miller, 20, said her involvement with CSU has showed her the power of faith in action. She served with fellow campus ministry members at a homeless shelter and women’s shelter on a spring break mission trip to Anchorage, Alaska, and now spends time ministering to the homeless at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

“It’s really opened my eyes to the power of serving others,” said Miller, a biology and public health major from Rochester.

Faith has a place on campus

Brother Ken Apuzzo

Brother Ken Apuzzo

Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who lives in the rectory at St. Lawrence, has seen the growth within campus ministry firsthand and describes the energy around the parish and the Newman Center as “palpable.” He’s pleased to see the increase in confessions and daily Mass attendance and hopes to see a continued up-tick in religious vocations.

“That time in college is so important for people to choose their vocation, and that’s why it’s so important that we invest in campus ministry,” Bishop Cozzens said. “That’s the time when young people encounter Christ and then can pursue their vocation.”

Now in the first week of fall semester, Brother Ken hopes this will be a breakout year in terms of reaching new students and strengthening the faith community. He asks for prayers from local Catholics for the incoming freshman class, which they hope to reach early on before temptation may draw people away from the faith.

To support their efforts to evangelize to such a large university community, Brother Ken is grateful to have the designation as a recognized student organization on a secular university campus.

“We believe that faith has a place in the midst of the university,” Brother Ken said. “It’s not just supposed to be across the street outside of the life of the university. By being an actual recognized student group on the campus, it puts spirituality and faith right there in the heart of the campus.”

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