Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reinventing Newman

One area of church life which doesn't get much press-play -- i.e. because they simply do good work and never find themselves in any kind of scandal -- is the apostolate of the Newman Centers, which can be found on so many non-Catholic college and university campuses in the States and beyond.

It's one of the many contradictions of my life that I earned my expensive piece of paper from an institution founded on the premise of divorcing clericalism from the academy. (Full disclosure: I renounce the grave evil of clericalism, and all its works, and all its empty promises.... If you didn't know that, welcome to Whispers.) Lo and behold, though, Penn was also the place which produced the first Catholic student center in the United States, one which does tremendous work despite seemingly daunting and ceaseless obstacles. I carry with me always the heroic and superhuman witness of the saintly Fr Chuck Pfeffer, my Newman Chaplain who literally gave himself to the last so that the Catholic community of University City may have life, and have it abundantly, and of everyone who shared in the love, joy and sense of community which are the indomitable characteristics of 3720 Chestnut Street.

Not long ago, diocesan funding cuts were so dire at one local Newman House that students were asked to each bring a roll of toilet paper to weekend Mass. No, I'm not kidding. It's a symptom that speaks to the truth of a moment in which you'll find two prevalent schools of ad intra thought when it comes to Catholic outreach on college campuses: 1. cut their funding, or 2. rejigger their priorities and disproportionately upping the emphasis on priestly/religious vocations, whilst cutting their funding.

This is an unwritten scandal of the current state of the church in this country.

Now more than ever, with the church frequently under siege in the realm of the secular academy, prophecies of doom, outcomes of confusion and superflous fruit of mass exodus dominating the headlines, the wider conversation and the lives of so many young Catholics, the mission of the Newman Center must remain to firstly and foremostly engage and encourage a school's Catholic community in the value and vocation of the life of faith, in all its diverse, rich and life-giving forms. Period. End of sentence.

When faced with the crises of this moment in history, it shouldn't be rocket science to figure out that you don't slash, marginalize or needlessly tinker with good programs which do the important work of forming and embracing the next generation in the broadest way possible. If anything, you redouble the effort.

Then again, if we've learned anything in recent years, it's that many of our shot-calling folk -- though being good people, of course -- are not rocket scientists.

Bottom line: by simply encouraging and engaging those who cared enough to come and see, reaching out to those beyond the fold, and welcoming all comers on an even plain, the recent history of Catholic Penn has produced a Vatican official (a convert, to boot), this age's Fulton Sheen, and the enfant terrible of the church in the United States, not to mention scores of other clerics and laity well-formed and eager to tackle the exigencies of the church in the world today.

If you're gauging by quality -- and if you're not, get your head checked now -- that's not a bad record. Dear Pennsylvania isn't alone in it, and for any diocese to even think of messing with the formula is simply an overreach for disaster.

In a story which gives us hope (and which sparked the diatribe you just read), the Newman Center at Arizona State University is undergoing a $5.7 million expansion.
When Fred Lucci started college, he planned to be an avid Sun Devil, but not necessarily a devout Catholic.

"I just stumbled on the Newman Center, and I was so moved and so excited about the Mass that I started coming every week and never missed a 6 o'clock Mass my whole time at ASU," Lucci said.

Lucci is now a diehard Sun Devil and a Catholic priest. And he wants other Arizona State University students to have the same opportunity.

Lucci, director of ASU's All Saints Newman Catholic Center, is overseeing the construction of a $5.7 million building. Officials expect final permits to be approved this month, and hope to break ground in the fall.

"We've had our main Mass in this auditorium since then (the 1960s) with a few renovations to accommodate the growing, larger crowds," Lucci said. "Our biggest student Mass happens in the main chapel, and we've so outgrown it. They (students) are just everywhere. They're sitting on the stairs, behind pillars, by the bathroom."

The Newman Center has existed for nearly 75 years and is the oldest and largest campus ministry at ASU. The current building was built in 1962 when ASU's student body totaled about 14,000. With more than 51,000 students at the Tempe campus, the university is now the nation's largest.

More than 1,800 people attend one of five weekend Masses each week, but center officials believe the number would be higher if the building was more conducive to the worship experience.

"We have really great Masses and students really love to come to Mass, but the place is really small. You don't get a good view or you don't hear the music very well. It's going to make the experience much better. It's just going to be beautiful," said ASU junior Paul Bersch of the Center's Student Association Leadership Team.

The structure will be more than 10,000 square feet and be built at the existing site. No changes will be made to the church.

"We're going to build a two-story structure with a social hall underneath that seats about 220 at round tables. Up above, we're going to sit 650 for our larger student Masses in a chapel," he said.

A 700-square-foot adoration chapel would be built near a courtyard creating an intimate prayer space, and there will be a student center for all campus ministry-related programs.

Lucci said the decision to build came after realizing that there are almost as many Catholic students at ASU as there were in the entire student body when the Newman Center was built.

"A lot of them want to come here, but they can barely get in. After two or three weeks they get fed up and stop going to church altogether," Lucci said. "And that's not what we want. We want young people to come establish themselves at a place where they are always loved by God."
Newman folk, God love you for the work you do. Eternal thanks from a grateful product of it.