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Helping university students see life in Jesus Christ Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Joan Carey, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013 -- 12:00 AM
Over 2,400 students attended five Ash Wednesday Masses and hundreds received the Sacrament of Confession at St. Paul University Catholic Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus this year. St. Paul’s “Christ the Cornerstone Campaign” is aiming to raise $24 million to replace outdated, crumbling buildings with a beautiful church and spacious student center that will further the work of evangelization on the campus. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- “Without St. Paul’s,” University of Wisconsin-Madison student Jamie Wheeler reflects, “without the guidance it offers . . . ” She pauses. Then she smiles. “We would be missing the Big Picture.”

Jamie is a chemistry Ph.D. student from Texas. Three years ago, she made the big move north to study at the University of Wisconsin.

The “Big Picture” Jamie refers to is, of course, life in Jesus Christ. Students like Jamie can’t even imagine what their years of formation as young adults would be like without the grounding they receive at St. Paul University Catholic Center.

Young adults coming out of the shelter of home and into a world-class campus like the University of Wisconsin face what too often becomes a subconscious decision to the Big Question: now that my parents aren’t around to drag me to Mass on Sunday, am I going to keep the faith or leave it behind?

Friendship with each other, friendship with Christ

As the university opened its doors in early September to welcome thousands of incoming students, St. Paul’s was at the ready to help them take on that Big Question.

Confident St. Paul’s students, missionaries, and staff stationed themselves on Library Mall and throughout the campus with enthusiastic smiles and offers of free pizza and root-beer floats. They engaged incoming students with invitations to freshman welcome events and a home-cooked meal at the student center.

Under the bright September sunshine, hundreds of conversations were buzzing:

“So you’re from New York! I can’t wait to introduce you to my Bible study leader who grew up there. . . ”

“You’re really going to love it here at St. Paul’s — the people are so awesome and friendly!”

“Your next class is at Sterling Hall? Let me point the way for you.”

“There’s a dance at Memorial Union on Friday – a bunch of us are going from St. Paul’s. Come with us!”

Inside the building the mood was no different: little groups of students buzzed with excitement over their first week on campus and how they found an instant home at St. Paul’s.

For now, it’s all about fellowship and friends and student-friendly food: having something fun to do. But at the root of all the excitement and chattering, one very personal message rings out loud and clear to each and every new student: “Jesus Christ invites you to share in His life and love, and St. Paul’s will help you open the door and walk through it.”

The invitations to pizza and root beer floats eventually lead to something bigger, something deeper: “My first class isn’t until 11 — we could meet at St. Paul’s for morning prayer and then breakfast.”

“You’re living in Liz Waters? Awesome! Wanna walk to Mass with me tomorrow?”

“Have you ever considered joining a Bible study?”

Students come to UW hungry for friends and acceptance and wanting to feel like they fit in. The ministry at St. Paul’s understands that evangelizing and spreading the Good News at UW-Madison begins with building a relationship and caring about the desires and needs of the person across from you.

It’s all about the students

The commitment of the St. Paul’s leadership to the evangelization of students is unmistakable: offer friendship and through it discover the lasting, eternal friendship with Christ.

But the scope of the mission of St. Paul University Catholic Center is staggering: 40,000 students on campus, 10,000 of them baptized Catholics . . . and of those 10,000, how many thousands arrive with no intention at all of holding on to the faith they’ve been given?

Of those 40,000, how many of them even know God? How can a comparably tiny staff in an aging building and student center that’s literally falling apart around them hope to make a difference?

The truth is simple, that the chapel, student center and staff are there for one reason: bring students to Christ. Almost all of the seemingly unbounded energy at St. Paul’s is directed toward the students.

How? Get close to them, bolster their spirits, comfort their lives, help them find their way through difficulty, challenge them to live with integrity and virtue, and to trust themselves and find God who is working through them. And do all these things by first being close to Christ through prayer and the sacraments!

It’s not always easy, but it does work. Each year more students are finding their way to the person of Jesus Christ. Students recognize that St. Paul’s isn’t just offering a temporary fix to their need for friendship or fitting in: it’s opening the door to a joyful encounter with the living God.

St. Paul’s offers students a foundation for their lives, their future vocation, their awork, not simply a Catholic collegiate experience.

Every year more and more students regularly attend Sunday Mass, and daily Mass has seen attendance grow to over 100 students a day.

Over 60 Bible studies meet every week to start the year, growing to over 75 studies a week as the year progresses. The website is over-is overflowing with announcements for spiritual direction, peer mentoring, large groups, nationally known Catholic speakers that visit to lead lectures and debates, small groups offering close fellowship and Scripture study, courses in theology, leadership training, choirs, opportunities for confession, Adoration, communal prayer with the Liturgy of the Hours, service opportunities through Knights of Columbus, Students for Life, and St. Vincent de Paul, spring break mission trips and local opportunities with diocesan missions that need young and energetic help, not to mention regular retreats and pilgrimages.

With its intense focus on students, St. Paul’s has become a model of Catholic campus ministry. Not only does it staff interns and missionaries from FOCUS and the Evangelical Catholic (19 of them this year), it also is visited by campus ministers around the nation who want to learn how to build an effective student-centered mission on campus.

A campaign to believe in

This year the leadership of St. Paul’s has an added challenge. As 2012 drew to a close in December, St. Paul’s kicked off the Christ the Cornerstone Campaign, whose purpose is to raise $24 million to replace the outdated, crumbling buildings (one over a century old) with a beautiful church and spacious Student Center that will accommodate the work of evangelization.

In what has got to be one of the quickest and most successful starts to a Catholic campaign of this magnitude, after only eight months, St. Paul’s is already a third of the way there.

St. Paul’s Senior Director of Advancement Scott Hackl explains that the unprecedented success of the campaign in such a short time is due to much careful preparation. “Years of patiently planning and building support during a time of great change at St. Paul’s are leading this strong start,” Hackl explained. “People are buying into the mission: they recognize the vitality of the ministry and the importance of a strong Catholic presence at the university.”

During the planning phase, the campaign team at St. Paul’s worked carefully, thoughtfully, and thoroughly with the Diocese of Madison, the City of Madison, the University of Wisconsin, business leaders, lay leaders, and UW alumni here and around the nation to make a convincing case that now is the time to build a fitting Catholic center on campus.

St. Paul’s proudly holds its place in history as the first Catholic campus ministry at a public university, and that mission now is as important as ever. The impact the University of Wisconsin, a world-class research university, has on the city, state, nation — and indeed the world — can’t be over-estimated. Because of this, the Catholic presence on Library Mall, seated directly between Bascom Hill and the Capitol, is arguably the most urgent site of ministry in the Diocese of Madison.

Importance of a strong Catholic presence on campus

Students can’t build themselves a new chapel and center. It’s the successful business leaders and alumni and laity who are stepping up to see this project through: people like Nick Meriggioli (president of Kraft Foods Oscar Mayer Business Unit) and his wife Barbara (who serves on the board for Catholic Charities).

People like Robert Dunn, Sr., a Madison-area business leader, and parents such as Dennis and Mary Baumgardner, are among the many who collectively use their gifts and influence to bring about a new and bold future for Catholicism at UW-Madison.

The Meriggiolis have five children, one of whom is already in college. “College experiences,” said Nick, “significantly shape our children’s beliefs and future.” Nick and Barbara are convinced that the skill with which St. Paul’s reaches out to young people will inspire them to embrace the Catholic faith during those college years.

As Dunn stated, “The chapel and new student center need to be large enough to attract new people to practice their faith. The new design will serve as an iconic symbol of the importance of the Catholic faith right in the center of the campus.” Dunn openly declares that “the need is real and the timing is right. I am very proud to say, I am supporting this outstanding project and the programs at St. Paul’s to build a bright future for coming generations.”

It’s well known that young Catholics often, rightly or wrongly, decide how they will respond to the call of Christ in their young adult years. When a young man or woman abandons the life of faith, it can take years to find the way back. Countless young adults who found St. Paul’s during their time at UW agree that without it, they could have landed just about anywhere. As it is, St. Paul’s helped ground them in the truths of the faith and in the life of the sacraments.

St. Paul’s has noticed that more and more parents across the state of Wisconsin are gaining confidence in sending their young adults to Madison because, along with the tremendous education they will receive, they now have every opportunity to hold on to their faith and through the guidance of the St. Paul’s community become the Christians God is calling them to be.

The Baumgardners witnessed firsthand how their son attended UW-Madison and left just this year for the seminary, fostered in large part by his involvement at St. Paul’s. “We always tell parents: send your kids to Madison, and encourage them to get involved at St. Paul’s. It will give your kids the anchor they need to get through this important period of their lives.”

The time is now, and if we seize it, the impact will last for generations.

 
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