| By Father Bryan Lowe

‘The joy of community’

Campus ministry and the importance of relationship

When I was in seminary, campus ministry was never something I thought I would be called to participate in. It’s not that I didn’t think that I would have any college students in whatever parish I was assigned to, but I guess I just thought that someone else would be doing that particular ministry.

I actually got my first experience in campus ministry during summer assignments as a seminarian at parishes in Tuscaloosa and in Jacksonville. It wasn’t until I was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic University Chapel in Birmingham that I began to work directly with students attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Later, I moved to the Cathedral of St. Paul and was once again working with students from UAB. After spending four years at UAB, I kind of thought that my days working in campus ministry were done. Then in 2017, I was assigned as pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Madison. After arriving, I found out that the church was responsible for campus ministry at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). If I were to pinpoint one thing that I have learned most clearly during my time in Madison, I would say that for campus ministry to work well, there needs to be a commitment by parishes in the area to provide financial and personnel resources to the program.

Let me back up a little bit, though, before we talk about campus ministry in depth. While we can certainly work with college students who have little to no faith background — and we do — it seems that the students who arrive having had an experience of a vibrant youth ministry program at their parish seem to make the transition to college better than those who don’t. Even then, the real work begins before youth ministry. Parents are ultimately responsible for keeping their children plugged into the faith. Young people need positive adult witnesses and mentors who can help them grow in their faith. When they’re engaged with the faith and the Church, it becomes much easier for us to help them grow.

One of the campus ministers at UAH is Betsy Lashley, a former youth minister at St. John’s. From her experience she believes “a positive youth group experience in high school is a major factor in college students walking through the door of their local campus center.” Lashley also believes that the students don’t necessarily come seeking knowledge; rather, they are looking “for a place where they can feel known, seen, and loved.” A natural result of the process is that students learn more about their faith, but Lashley emphasizes that it is more important that the students experience “the joy of community.”

The experience of community yields accompaniment. Lashley explains, “If we could simplify what young people in their teens and young adulthood are looking for from their Church, it would be the word ‘relationship.’” In essence, our youth long to be loved and accepted, “walking with and growing in faith with others who are doing the same.” It is the opportunity to talk openly and ask questions that fulfills a college student’s need to share “their love of Christ with others.”

In our experience, campus ministry has to be more than just programs and events to get students to come visit the campus center. Of course, that’s a great start, but the reason we see students stay is found in the relationships they discover and develop. Our campus center at UAH is a place students can ask questions and discuss issues, but it’s also a place where they discover other students who are walking the life of discipleship and are striving to grow in holiness day by day. We have seen great growth in Catholic campus ministry at UAH in the last few years, and I attribute all of it to the work of the Holy Spirit.

When we began campus ministry at UAH, it was a small group of students who met in whatever room UAH provided. We now have two houses just off campus, which the diocese purchased for us — thank you Bishops Baker and Raica for making this happen! In one of the houses, we now have a dedicated chapel, which Bishop Raica blessed and dedicated. The opportunity for students to pray before the Blessed Sacrament has paid great dividends for the students and has certainly helped them grow in faith. This year, we have had multiple students join the Catholic Church through several of our local parishes. This is certainly the work of the Holy Spirit, but having a place where these students can spend time around others who are striving to grow in their faith has certainly enhanced their journey!

We have also been blessed in the Huntsville area to have so many priests who are willing to give of their time to make campus ministry work at UAH. We have six priests who rotate celebrating a weekly Mass and hearing confessions at the campus center. It is a wonderful opportunity for these students to interact with so many different priests on a semi-regular basis. We’ve also been blessed to have other priests and religious come on occasion to speak to our students.

Please pray for the continued success of campus ministry, not just at UAH but all over our diocese. All those involved with campus ministry need your prayers as well because, at times, it can be challenging. It takes a great deal of effort to minister to so many students and college-age young people, and the tangible successes sometimes are hard to see. I believe, however, that if we persevere in prayer and with trust in God, good things will happen. We’ve certainly begun to see some of the fruits of our labor at UAH, and I am extremely grateful that God has placed me in this ministry — among others – because His plan is always better than ours!

Father Bryan Lowe was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama on June 23, 2001. He is currently the pastor at St. John the Baptist Parish in Madison, where he has been since 2017. He served as a priest in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Anniston prior to his current assignment. He is also the campus chaplain for Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).