Why do Campus Ministries Have “Permanent Communities”?

"The Procession," John August Swanson
“The Procession,” John August Swanson

By Mike Hayes

This post was published originally at Googlinggod.com on February 17, 2014.  Daily Theology appreciates the opportunity to share it here.  

In New Mexico a story came out this week that the Archbishop of Santa Fe has asked the Dominicans to leave the Newman Center at the University of New Mexico. He will replace them with younger priests from the diocese who have no experience in Campus Ministry, but the guy who will be the pastor is also the Vocation Director.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d offer this. I spoke at a conference to the West Coast Dominicans and found them to be a hoot. I also have done a lot of work alongside the Archbishop of Santa Fe, the Very Rev. Michael Sheehan and he’s a great guy and far from ideological one way or the other. As he puts it himself, “A bird needs a left wing AND a right wing in order to fly.”

Many people at the Newman Center are upset that the Dominicans are leaving. I haven’t had the pleasure of being there, but I could imagine that their homilies are well done and that they speak to the experience of a University community well. I’m also sure that counted among the regular mass attendees include faculty and former faculty who would not go to mass at all if it were not for the Dominicans.

So why the change, you might ask?

Like any good reporter, I looked at the facts and came up with what I think is happening here.

Newman Centers often become places where people come when they are dissatisfied with what they find in other parishes in their area. And let’s face facts, there are some places where liturgy can in fact, be performed so poorly that it kills faith. Bad homilies certainly abound. Rigid adherence to rubrics often drive some people crazy when it gets in the way of pastoral care or local tradition. Badly performed music or music that tries too hard to be “cool” kills many a spirit. And there are some parishes that are simply unwelcoming.

So at times, people flock to Newman Centers or local Campus Ministries to find some young energy and vibrant liturgies. The truth is that often these places are hallmarks of what liturgy should be like. Excellent music and preaching. Strong hospitality. Loving communities involved in working with the poor. Etc.

But…at times, all of the good parts about Newman Centers and Campus Ministries obscures the fact that these places are supposed to be centers for college students and not parishes. The focus wanes away from the students of a given University and gets placed on all the parish “services” that are needed for parishes to serve their parishioners well. Before you know it, there’s a Sunday School program for kids, a parish council gets formed and social events start to happen, weddings happen, funerals, baptisms…all the things that take time away from the student community.

And it all happens because older parishioners choose to make this place their parish.

Hear me, correctly, now. I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. Some places do this very well. There’s a permanent community based at the Center and they support the students who come there as well. The FOCUS of the community is on the students, not on the parishioners. The staff is focused on welcoming students and the permanent community is a happy afterthought.

But this is few and far between.

These centers often become places that are a bit more “liberal” for lack of a better term. Sometimes it’s where everyone who doesn’t like more traditional liturgy comes to worship and that might be the only reason they attend.

So I might muse a bit here about the situation we find here in New Mexico.

1) My guess is that the Newman Center is a bit of one of these liberal outposts–but not very far left. The Dominicans I know are a bit more centrist than anything else. But for the staunchest traditionalist, it’s too liberal for them.

2) My guess is that there is a significant number of people who have been attracted to the Center by the Dominicans and have been spiritually fed by them for many years now.

3) My guess is that the Archbishop has received complaints from some more traditional students saying that they don’t feel welcome there and that they have chosen to travel a few miles away from Campus to attend mass elsewhere.

4) My guess is that the place is really more like a University Parish where the permanent community gets more attention than the students do. But where the permanent community also strongly supports the students with their dollars, with meals, with mentoring. A quick look at their website shows that the Campus Ministry page hasn’t been updated since October but the permanent community has plenty of current happenings listed.

5) My guess is that Archbishop Sheehan would also like to have a crack at getting seminarians from the University instead of them going to the Dominicans.

So that’s all conjecture to be sure. But it’s an educated conjecture. And I do have a strong opinion about these places. In short, it is as follows:

“If you want to attend mass at a place dedicated to Campus Ministry, you should first realize that you are a guest there and that this place is not aimed at you!”

Newman Centers need to engage STUDENTS. There should be a number of student masses, on the weekend, not just one. The students should be the lectors, eucharistic ministers and hospitality ministers. There should be a bunch of programming run by students for students. The students should be in the center and have priority when it comes to the center’s use for activities.

Too many of these places are run by the permanent community. Granted, they are a great source of financial support, especially at a secular university who provides no funding as they would if it were a Jesuit University, let’s say. They become vibrant parishioners and may very well serve as great evangelizers for people who feel uninvited elsewhere.

But the focus all too easily can be taken off of the Campus. The Director ends up being the pastor of the community and can no longer focus his energy on the students who need him. The end result becomes a place that doesn’t engage students well.

In fact, it may very well drive them away.

At one Newman Center that I will not name here, a student arrived for a Sunday Evening mass. He turned to one of my friends and said “I thought this was Campus Ministry? What’re all the old people doing here?!”

And that is not a good vibe for a college student to feel. They want to be with others their own age for worship. They want to see others their own age serving at the altar. And they want to know that this experience of worship is meaningful to their friends. And furthermore, they want to be included in this experience of worship because far too often they are ignored in their own parish.

I think these communities can co-exist and I’ve seen it happen in certain places. It seems from what I can read that the Newman Center in New Mexico may have in fact, been pretty good at the balance. But I would say that the balance may have tipped too much towards the permanent community for Archbishop Sheehan’s comfort. I also believe that the Bishop is listening perhaps to a few too many traditional minded students and should ask, how the Campus Ministry staff might expand to evangelize those on a secular campus who just plum forget about God from time to time?

My thought is turning the place into a University Parish may have been a better plan and keeping the Dominicans at the helm might have solidified it a bit. They could then split responsibility between a parish staff and a Campus Ministry staff and would be able to pay attention to both entities with great care. That would take money and commitment, but I think it could have been well worth it. If the liturgy was too non-traditional, well then, there are ways to work with that. St. Dominic’s in San Francisco is a huge Dominican Church that I always find to be very traditional, but also very young adult centered. It reaches that happy medium often and perhaps that’s what the Dominicans could have strived for in consort with the Archbishop.

In short, two sides fail to talk, compromise and reach consensus. One of them has to go and the Bishop is the one who has the authority.

This is sad but what is sadder is that the students now have inexperienced Campus Ministers who I believe will only focus on vocations and traditional students. Parishioners will uproot and head down the road, perhaps not even to a Catholic Church for worship.

For me, the bottom line is the students need to be served and the permanent community took too many liberties with this Newman Center and tried to turn it into their parish. They may have very well done so.

And now it belongs to nobody who helped build it.

Mike Hayes is Director of Campus Ministry at Canisius College.  He blogs at Googlinggod.com and is Senior Editor at Bustedhalo.com.