Monday, October 20, 2008

In Big D, SMU Swims the Tiber

Down in the place where the folks "can't build churches fast enough," another key tipping point has come to pass -- Dallas' Southern Methodist University ain't so SM anymore:
For three years running, Catholics have outnumbered United Methodists and all other groups among SMU students who answered a survey question about their faith.

This fall, some 1,425 SMU students identified themselves as Catholics, compared with 1,237 United Methodists. The Catholic total represents about 25 percent of those who registered a religious preference.

Tim Roy, a senior music composition major from Nederland, Texas, isn't sure he even knew there was an SMU Catholic – as the campus ministry is called – when he arrived on the University Park campus four years ago. But he got involved early and stayed involved.

"It's been one of the great foundations of my college experience," he said.

Mr. Roy plays piano for the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at SMU's Perkins Chapel. The chapel seats 280, and students routinely fill it for that Mass.

"I'm told that it is the largest regular gathering on campus of any student group," said Bill Bridge, an SMU law professor who is Catholic.

Catholicism as an organized presence at SMU goes back more than 75 years. A key period was the 1990s, when the Rev. Michael Duca, was Catholic chaplain and Judy Henneberger ran the Catholic campus ministry.

They planned together a Catholic ministry building on campus, and Dr. Henneberger raised $1.2 million. The Neuhoff Catholic Community Student Center opened in 1996 and includes a chapel, offices, kitchen and gathering area for students.

Since 2004, SMU Catholic has been run by Frank Santoni, who came from campus ministry at the University of Notre Dame. Many credit him with increased participation by students.

"I would not say it's totally Frank, but it's next to totally," said Dennis Grindle, director of the career management center at SMU's Cox School of Business and a member of the ministry's board.

Under Mr. Santoni, SMU Catholic has created a special program for first-year students, as well as Urban Plunge, in which students devote their fall break to serving refugee families in Dallas' Vickery Meadow area.

Of late, the ministry's annual budget – raised from donations – has more than doubled to about $525,000. The full-time staff has grown to five, including ministers for evangelism and social justice.

Mr. Santoni also helped get a $12,000 grant from the Fund for Theological Education, to promote among students consideration of Catholic church work as a career.

"We're committed to forming Catholics for the long haul," Mr. Santoni said. "We're not here to baby-sit them for four years."

Bishop Kevin Farrell knew little about SMU when he came from Washington to lead the Diocese of Dallas in May 2007. He found his way to campus, was impressed by the Catholic presence, and decided to nurture it.

This summer, Bishop Farrell named the Rev. Tony Lackland full-time chaplain for SMU Catholic. As the local priest corps goes, Father Lackland is a youthful 47. He's the first priest assigned to SMU in years, in part because priests are in short supply.

"I thought for a long time about it," Bishop Farrell said. "But my priorities are toward the young."

SMU's Catholic community extends beyond students. The 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at Perkins Chapel regularly sees about 200, mainly faculty, staff and people from the neighborhood....

No description of Catholicism at SMU can fairly omit the Rev. Charles Curran, whose controversial writings about birth control and other issues caused the Vatican (specifically Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI) to declare in 1986 that he was unfit to teach Catholic theology.

Father Curran left the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and was eventually hired by SMU. He has taught there since 1991.

"The people have been hospitable, friendly and challenging in a good sense," said Father Curran, who attends Mass on campus, and who records show is a major donor to SMU Catholic.

SMU remains owned by the United Methodist Church, and its top chaplain must be a United Methodist pastor. SMU's Perkins School of Theology is a leading producer of clergy for the denomination.
Named above as the community's chaplain in the "key" period of the '90s, in April Duca -- then rector of Big D's Holy Trinity Seminary -- was named bishop of Shreveport.