Catholic Courier

Posted: August 1, 2016

Courier photo by Jeff Witherow

Mckenzie Connor was a peer minister during her senior year at Aquinas Institute.

Campus ministry is 'heart of the school'

By Mike Latona/Catholic Courier

This past school year, students from McQuaid Jesuit High School visited with residents at a juvenile-detention center; served as pallbearers at the funeral of a homeless man; and mingled with impoverished patrons of St. Joseph's House of Hospitality as part of a walk-a-thon for the ministry.

Service projects of these sorts -- along with various spiritual and social events -- are fueled by campus-ministry programs at McQuaid and the other four Catholic high schools in the diocese. Based on the frequency and depth of such efforts, it's plain to see that the Catholic-education experience extends well beyond academic offerings.

"Campus ministry is the heart of the school," stated Nathan Drahms, McQuaid's director of campus ministry.

"Campus ministry complements the classroom education. It is the lived experience of (students') faith in action," added Nancy Roy, campus minister at Elmira Notre Dame High School. Some of those experiences at her school include retreats for different grade levels; charitable fundraising; and extensive volunteer efforts at local ministries, schools and nursing facilities.

Along with retreats and service initiatives, Aquinas Institute's campus ministry features a peer ministers' program. This is a course for high-school seniors through which students help plan activities and also receive skills training in such areas as small-group facilitation, conflict resolution and counseling. In addition, peer ministers such as Jack Dillenbeck -- who did the honors on a late-May morning -- lead the school in prayer during announcements to start the day.

"It's a hands-on theology course," said Mary Bills, Aquinas' campus minister, in describing peer ministry.

Mckenzie Connor, a recent Aquinas graduate, said her peer-ministry experience was particularly fulfilling when she met individually with fellow students in the school chapel, lending a compassionate ear as they grappled with personal issues such as family matters, relationships, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse.

"I've helped people in the chapel, but also been on the receiving end (in the past)," remarked Mckenzie, a parishioner of Holy Trinity in Webster who is beginning at Ithaca College this fall.

Student leadership, such as that provided by Aquinas' peer ministers, is a leading objective of campus-ministry initiatives. At Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women, for instance, the student-based Campus Ministry Board is responsible for all service projects. Meanwhile, at McQuaid, Drahms noted that students are empowered to plan Masses, retreats, and service and social activities. They also help coordinate the annual Break for Life Conference sponsored by McQuaid, a pro-life event that involves numerous schools.

Involvement in campus ministry serves "to foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each person," according to Bishop Kearney High School's website. Bills added that campus ministry encourages students -- both Catholic and non-Catholic -- "to experience Catholicism as this rich, varied, deep, intricate way of life and to see where God is moving in their lives."

"As students serve others," Roy added, "they gain a deeper awareness of their own giftedness and others' needs, and they build friendships with peers and our local community."

Mckenzie, for one, has developed many strong friendships within the Aquinas community thanks to campus ministry.

"Everybody has each other's back," she said.

Meanwhile, Drahms observed that campus-ministry activities help bring McQuaid students out of their comfort zones, spurring them to connect with folks who aren't as fortunate.

"Obviously, Pope Francis is a popular guy. We admire how he encounters people and gets his hands dirty," Drahms said. "If we encounter the marginalized, the poor and the needy, that's when conversion happens."