March 16, 2018

Growing IU campus ministry initiatives help to strengthen the faith of Millennials

Elizabeth Werner, a freshman at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, sits on Feb. 15 in the church of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington. Werner’s faith has grown over her first year at IU through the increasing campus ministry efforts sponsored by St. Paul and missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Elizabeth Werner, a freshman at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, sits on Feb. 15 in the church of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington. Werner’s faith has grown over her first year at IU through the increasing campus ministry efforts sponsored by St. Paul and missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

BLOOMINGTON—When Elizabeth Werner came to Indiana University (IU) last fall as a freshman, her hold on her Catholic faith was tenuous.

The parish in which she grew up in Michigan City, Ind., didn’t have a youth ministry program, and she had seen some of her older siblings walk away from their faith.

“I definitely struggled with my faith through high school,” said Werner, 19. “Not having a support or knowing anyone who was really faithful was difficult.”

After attending a Sunday Mass at St. Paul Catholic Center on the IU campus early in her first semester, Werner filled out a small information card for possible participants in a small student-led group Bible study. She was soon contacted about a group and joined it.

“It was definitely a changing point,” she said. “I gained a lot of friends. I met people that I could just say ‘hi’ to. What a comforting thing that is. They were struggling with the same things that I am.

“I also gained a depth to my relationship with Jesus through that. That was really awesome.”

Now she’s started her own Bible study group, seeking to bring other students like herself closer to Christ and the Church.

Werner’s story has been repeated many times in the lives of other IU students this academic year as the campus ministry activities sponsored by St. Paul have seen a notable upsurge.

To cite one example, last year there were 12 Bible study groups tied to St. Paul. This year, there are 43 groups.

St. Paul’s staff members have also increased the worship, service and social opportunities for Catholic students at IU. Mass, the sacrament of penance and eucharistic adoration are available daily.

The staff has been freed up to expand their ministry in part through the service of five young adult missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which arrived at IU at the start of the academic year. (Related story: FOCUS missionaries help spur growth of campus ministry at IU)

The missionaries help organize the dozens of Bible study groups now meeting several nights each week on locations across campus. They also help students grow individually in their faith in a process they call being “in discipleship.”

Last year, there were 10 students through St. Paul in discipleship. This year, there are 52.

‘You have other options’

When Werner arrived on campus last fall, she at first gravitated toward some of her friends from Michigan City.

“Their focus was to party,” she said. “And I kind of thought that was what I was supposed to do and what was kind of expected, because we’re college kids. That’s what everybody does. But I realized really quickly that that didn’t make me happy whatsoever.”

She soon found that St. Paul offered many alternatives to the common college lifestyle.

In addition to participating in a Bible study group, Werner attended a retreat sponsored by St. Paul, started regularly attending a Sunday evening dinner there and participated in social events it frequently organizes. The parish also offers weekly service opportunities at nursing homes and Boys and Girls Clubs in Bloomington.

“You have other options,” she said. “You don’t have to [party] because everyone else is doing that and you feel alone. You can come to St. Paul and see what they’re doing.”

Dominican Father Patrick Hyde, an associate pastor at St. Paul who oversees its campus ministry, has been freed up by the FOCUS missionaries to expand outreach to IU students.

Last year, he was responsible for the Bible study groups and the discipleship training, duties that he said took up 75 percent of his ministry time.

With the arrival of the FOCUS missionaries, that time commitment has gone down to about 15 percent.

“They really take on the small groups, the evangelization and the discipleship piece,” said Father Patrick of the missionaries. “That allows me to do more.”

Among other things, he’s given more attention to retreats sponsored by St. Paul, which he said has seen “tremendous growth” this year.

A significant sphere of life at IU that Father Patrick sees as a major area for growth at St. Paul is in its system of fraternities and sororities, which accounts for a third of the 49,000 students. It is one of the largest such systems on college and university campuses in the country.

This year, there are six Bible study groups in the fraternities and sororities.

“That’s going to be a long uphill climb,” Father Patrick said. “We’re tapping into what already exists in terms of their desire for fraternal and sisterly bond and cultivating it for Christ. They’re there because they want to be a part of something greater than themselves, even if they think it’s just a party. The more that we can get into that area, the better we can serve them.”

‘I could have been one of them’

Werner and the growing number of Catholic IU students embracing their faith are, to a certain degree, bucking a national trend which sees many so-called Millennials, those born after 1980, identifying with no faith tradition at all.

“It kind of just makes me sad, to be honest, because I could have been one of them,” said Werner. “If I wasn’t so diligent, I could have very easily been, ‘OK, I’m just going to become of the world.’ I felt like I was already on that path.”

Father Patrick, other staff members at St. Paul, the FOCUS missionaries and students active in campus ministry seek to offer a different path to the many IU students whose faith has taken a back seat.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Father Patrick said. “And on campus, there really is a vacuum in which faith, morality, ethics and things like that are not really emphasized or are disregarded altogether. It ends up creating a great thirst for people who are seeking the truth.

“They might get disaffiliated, but they see the emptiness around them. This is why it’s so important for us to have a great ministry that’s engaging people on every level as best we can in evangelization and discipleship.”

Dylan Arango, an IU junior from Fort Wayne, Ind., is involved in these efforts. The president of Hoosier Catholic, the campus ministry student organization at St. Paul that is responsible for organizing most its social events, Arango came to IU with a strong faith.

Although he knows this makes him somewhat unusual among his peers, he’s not discouraged to reach out to them to share the faith.

“It’s the reality of things,” Arango said. It is a battle. But as long as we continue to put our faith in the Lord, I certainly think that things at IU will continue to trend upward. Hopefully, that will spread to people outside of IU and the rest of the world from there.”

Father Patrick sees significance in the campus ministry he oversees not just for the students themselves, but also for the parishes to which they’ll go once their time at IU is over.

“We want people who go forward from here who are formed to make an impact in whatever parish they go to,” he said. “My hope is that the work we do here will affect and support every other parish where our students end up after they graduate.”

“In my mind, the skills we’re acquiring here are very applicable in the real world,” Arango said. “If we are preparing ourselves now, we certainly can go out into the workplace and model a similar way of ministry wherever we are.”

‘Meaningful intimacy’

While campus ministry at IU has the potential to affect the Church on a larger scale, Father Patrick and those collaborating with him know that it will come about at the personal level.

He said the small group Bible studies that have flourished this year is “a great way to have people get connected, because one of the biggest issues that we find in ministry is that people don’t have meaningful intimacy in their lives.”

Werner found that for herself in the Bible study group for women she joined last fall. All of the Bible study groups that the FOCUS missionaries help organize are grouped for men or women only. Werner likes it that way.

“A small group is a place not only for us to grow, but for us to be vulnerable with each other,” she said. “It is so much easier to have women all together or men all together to feel fully comfortable to share what you’re struggling with. You’re struggling with completely different things.”

That intimacy in faith only increases when students enter into the discipleship process, which is also overseen by the FOCUS missionaries.

Werner meets with another female student who has already “been discipled” to help her grow in her faith, and to learn how to apply it in her daily life.

“I meet with her once a week,” Werner said, “and I’m very honest and open about what I’m struggling with. She keeps me accountable to do the right thing. But she would never say, ‘What you’re doing is completely wrong.’ She’s so kind.”

It is in these relationships, in small group Bible studies and through many other campus ministry initiatives at St. Paul that a growing number of IU students are encountering and embracing the beauty of the Catholic faith.

“When the truth is presented with joy, with love and with compassion—people respond to that,” Father Patrick said. “The beauty of this whole thing is that we are constantly, just because of the scope of the place where we are, encountering people who are having beautiful and wonderful conversions.”

(To learn more about campus ministry at Indiana University in Bloomington, visit


(Related story: Smiles, selfies and diversity on display as archbishop visits St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington)

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