Legatus members in Nebraska have teamed up to aid in campus’ Catholic revival . . .
In a state blessed with rich farmland, Nebraska Legates are among its most prodigious “farmers” — laboring in the Lord’s fields. One “field” they are cultivating with special care is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) by helping to renew the campus’ culture through its Newman Center.
Six Legate couples have been involved on the Center’s Leadership Council — all of them members of the Lincoln Chapter except for Omaha’s Paul and Bernadette Esposito. And so far their efforts are paying off, yielding bumper crops of young Catholics well-formed and passionate about the faith.
“My involvement and love for the Newman Center stems from the fact that I converted to Catholicism there some 41 years ago,” said John Miller, a real-life farmer who serves on the Leadership Council with his wife Pat. They are members of Legatus’ Lincoln Chapter.
A great problem
Some 2,500 students are actively involved in the Newman Center’s ministries, including receiving the sacraments (daily Mass and Confession), forming Bible studies, engaging in pro-life work, and joining two organizations launched on the Newman Center’s explosion of faith — a national Catholic fraternity and sorority.
Although only half of UNL students who identify themselves as Catholics go to the Newman Center, the level of participation has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. This poses a big problem: The Newman Center’s church and facilities have become too small to accommodate its burgeoning apostolate. The church, St. Thomas Aquinas, seats just 325, and all four Sunday Masses are standing-room only.
To meet this growing challenge, the Newman Center is conducting its “A Great Problem to Have” capital campaign to build new facilities, including houses for the fraternity and sorority. Legates on the Newman Center’s Leadership Council are spearheading the campaign — $10 million of its $25 million goal raised to date — as well as serving on the committees guiding the regular operations of the apostolate, which is forming a new generation of Catholics.
This new generation includes converts (about 25-30 are received into the Church annually through the Newman Center) and alumni who have graduated to the priesthood and religious life.
Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who sits on the Leadership Council, said he applauds its evangelization efforts. Because the well-formed Catholics coming out of the Newman Center are “a leaven” for the whole state, his fellow Nebraskan prelates — Grand Island Bishop William J. Dendinger and Omaha Archbishop George L. Lucas — also support it in word and deed. The three men also serve as the capital campaign’s spiritual chairs.
“I think many of these young people have seriousness about the ultimate goals of life,” Bishop Bruskewitz told Legatus magazine. “Many students who casually join the Newman Center find themselves enthused and driven by a strong sense of defending the faith and spreading it to others.”
Since being appointed bishop 20 years ago, Bishop Bruskewitz said he has seen a greater receptivity to the Catholic presence on campus.
“They’ve become more welcoming toward the good things the Center is doing,” he said, whereas previous administrations “just weren’t as accepting. But now we have a climate where we can have a Eucharistic procession through campus each year, something hard to imagine happening in the past.”
The bishop also credits the revival to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), founded by Denver Legate Curtis Martin. Active on 74 campuses nationwide, the ministry’s biggest “team” of Catholic missionaries (13 last year) serves at UNL.
Working out of the Newman Center, FOCUS missionaries present students with the fullness of the faith through one-on-one evangelization, forming small Bible studies (last year the Center had over 100, with 550 students involved) and being a visible presence at campus events.
All this has helped Catholics break out of their “ghetto mentality,” according to the Newman Center’s director of development, Jude Werner.
“When I was a student 20 years ago, maybe 150 students were involved with the Newman Center,” explained Werner, 37. “It was a small, isolated group.”
Major credit for the Center’s revival also goes to Fr. Robert Mata, Werner said. When he was appointed the Newman Center’s pastor and chaplain 15 years ago, the priest “brought in a whole new evangelistic mentality — bringing in FOCUS, growing the Center’s programs, establishing a student Knights of Columbus council, then later the fraternity and sorority.”
“Students today have more challenges than ever before,” said Werner, noting the draw of a popular culture antithetical to Christianity. “So every day we’re out in the trenches helping students see the beauty of Christ’s love and the sacraments versus the empty promises of our culture. People are drawn to where they see happiness and joy.”
And it’s not just the Newman Center staff, Werner said, but the student members who are evangelizing UNL. “Having other students seeing peers who are happy, joyfilled Catholics is the best marketing we could ask for.”
Regarding the Center’s cramped quarters: “If you’re a Catholic who is not firm in the faith and you’re coming here week after week and being forced to stand, you might just stop coming. It’s inconsistent with an open, evangelistic community to stand in a corner at Mass.
“You never can be content with too many students involved,” Werner explained. Yet overall “we’ve got too many people coming to Mass, too many great things going on that we just need room and resources to do better. It’s an embarrassment of riches we need to capitalize upon.”
Legates have been instrumental in that capitalization process, he said.
“Both the Newman Center, an essential ministry of the Church’s new evangelization, and I personally, as a lay professional, have benefited significantly through the involvement of Legatus members,” Werner said. “The professional guidance, moral leadership, and personal mentoring of these men and women have been instrumental in our ongoing success — and our ability to impact thousands of students with the message of Christ’s love each year.”
Lincoln Legates Keith and Pat May, both on the Leadership Council, hope their grandchildren will be among the future beneficiaries.
“We’ve got 17 grandchildren,” said Pat May, who was married to Keith at the Newman Center chapel in 1969. The couple prays that at least some of them will go to UNL and benefit from the Newman Center.
“What really drives me is seeing these amazing young people, so alive with the faith,” said Keith May. “There are many 30-somethings active here in the Church in Lincoln who went to the Newman Center. It’s edifying to see, and we hope to do our bit to serve the current and future generations.”
Matthew A. Rarey is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.
For more, visit huskercatholic.org