Meeting Students (Virtually) Where They Are: How Catholic Campus Ministry Has Adapted Amidst a Pandemic

The first email I received from my daughter’s college was one of consolation. John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America, was letting families know that life on campus would be changing for at least a few months. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CUA, like most colleges, would need to find a “new normal.” What followed were other emails related to dorm life, online learning, and deposits. 

Such is life in the time of COVID-19.

Since those first emails arrived, everything has changed inside the world of higher education. Vital aspects of campus life like counseling, job placement, and academic advisement have all been forced to figure out how to operate remotely. Colleges are reeling with the financial impacts of not having students on campus. Through it all, one area of college life has found a way to not just survive but thrive: Catholic campus ministry.

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The examples are myriad across the country. Take Walsh University in North Canton, OH where they have not only shifted online but have found ways to expand their ministry. In addition to daily live-streamed Masses, they offer the Rosary via Instagram Live and frequent opportunities to adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament via Zoom. These “Virtual IGNITE” events draw many students who might not typically attend an in-person event. The college plans to continue many of these programs throughout the summer.

For Fr. Andrew Merrick of Christ the King Parish and Catholic Center at Louisiana State University, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the opportunity for students to request 10 or 15-minute appointments for the Sacrament of Confession. Using online appointment scheduling, Fr. Andrew is able to set times for Reconciliation with students in need and then meet them in person for the Sacrament. 

Campus ministry teams have become skilled at finding the right medium for each moment of encounter with students. The website of Saint Paul University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reads like a tech startup. Their “Safer at Home” program uses Facebook Live, Zoom, Instagram, Google Hangouts, and YouTube to connect students with one another and with the sacramental life of the Church. Fr. Eric Nielson, pastor, says, “We have found that the isolation of being at home has caused more students to seek the community of a Bible study, even if it is done remotely.”

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Finally, CCMA, the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, has brought together hundreds of campus ministers for weekly “Office Hours” via Zoom. These sessions have provided many examples of creativity amidst the struggle of working remotely. A throughline has emerged from campus to campus: the ministry doesn’t stop just because students are at home. This has emerged as one piece of truly “good news” stories amidst the difficulties caused by the pandemic. 

As a father of one in college and three more after that, it’s encouraging to know that Catholic campus ministry is one of the Church’s top priorities. I have confidence that my kids will be affirmed in their Catholicism, whether or not a crisis is unfolding. 

COVID-19 has changed everything on campus, but it’s also given chaplains and campus ministers a golden opportunity. Students entering college in the fall can seek out campus ministry and explore the new virtual spaces that they have created this past semester. For returning students, campus ministry will continue to form community in the midst of social distancing. Through creative planning and the use of technology, more students than ever are able to participate in the life of the Church.