(Reprinted with permission of The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay)
When I first arrived at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, I planned on only going to Mass occasionally. Far away at another university I had a close friend who was a devout Catholic and a faithful disciple. She was the reason I even considered going to Mass; I did not want to disappoint her. She challenged me to practice my faith. My faulty logic changed after the first three days at Drake. College was intimidating, I felt alone, and things were moving really fast all around me. Right when those feelings became almost overwhelming, I received an invitation in my mailbox from the local Catholic Newman Center, “Food and Fellowship at Five O’clock Sunday Nights.” It was 4:55 p.m. when I found the invitation. I took my fear and my worry and I headed over to the church to see if it helped.
Fr. John was there. Sr. Carola was there. Seventy-five young adults were there. Jesus Christ was there. My life as a disciple began that night. Within two years, I was singing in the choir, going to daily Mass, making a regular confession, teaching third grade religious education and listening for a calling to the priesthood. Those college years were a crucial time for encountering Jesus Christ and hearing the call; a calling that came to me faintly in seventh grade, but had been forgotten. It almost did not happen because when I entered college I was not yet a committed disciple.
My experience is not that unique. Sr. Laura Zelten, the campus minister at UWGB, recently sent me a research article entitled, “The Impact of College Experiences on Vocational Discernment” (http://cara.georgetown.edu/Spring2016SpecialReport.pdf). The survey report included 1,575 men who were in formation or are now recently ordained, and 883 women who are involved in religious life. These are people who attended college, not seminary or the convent, prior to discovering their calling. Although I cannot summarize the entire article, the statistics make strong points. During the college years, young people meet Jesus Christ and find their vocation through the Mass, eucharistic adoration, retreats, spiritual direction, the rosary, service outreach, Liturgy of the Hours, Bible study and spending time with priests and religious. The data shows that 1 in 10 considered a vocation during their teen years, and then the idea was brought back to their attention during college. The rest did not start to think about their calling at all until they were invited to do so during the college years. Catholic colleges did better in every category in bringing forth vocations.
In light of all of this, I ran a few quick statistics of my own. Since the fall of 2010, our diocese has welcomed 39 new seminarians. Not all have remained in formation, but many are still with us. Of those 39, 28 entered with previous college experience. That means nearly 72 percent of all new seminarians already experienced some college studies or even have a college degree. It was during the college years that they deepened their sense of discipleship; often through a Newman Center, a parish, or a movement such as Catholic Youth Expeditions.
This reflection on vocations is not about numbers. Rather, it is about making disciples for Jesus Christ, proclaiming the Gospel, fostering our spiritual family and leading souls to heaven. These powerful experiences seem to be happening in college. So what do we do?
+ Keep building the foundations for discipleship and vocations in the younger years. Our young people do not need to wait until college to find Jesus Christ, make a commitment, and discover their vocation. Let’s give them the tools sooner.
+ Support our campus ministry and vocation efforts in any way possible.
+ Help make connections happen. It often takes an outside person to connect our youth to their campus ministers, priests, and sisters when they first arrive.
+ Challenge each other to be better disciples. Remember the influence my friend had on me in the opening vignette!
+ Help each parish track where their graduated high school seniors attend college and create a volunteer-based ministry to keep in touch with them when they are away, or when they are visiting home again.
As vocation director, I make about 12 visits per year to colleges and universities. Upon arrival, a designated student gathers men from our diocese. We pray together, share in a meal at a popular restaurant; I assure them of the bishop’s support of their discernment, and we have a serious conversation about discipleship and prayer. This activity connects them to their family back here in the Green Bay Diocese. It is really encouraging to hear about their faith.
Please help me and our religious brothers and sisters by letting us know if someone is discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life, and tell us what college they attend. There are many layers to the work of fostering vocations. For this National Vocation Awareness Week, I wanted to make you aware of the crucial college years.
Fr. Schuster is the vocation director for the Diocese of Green Bay. Contact him at (920) 272-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.