The college campus: new mission territory
Reading Time: 4 minutes

College professor shares his views on the Catholic Church and today’s young people


The present moment is a critical time for young adult Catholics, as we have seen with the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. I study Catholic student movements, but I also have a background in leading youth movements. I worked as a missionary for the International Movement of Catholic Students and saw the power of the Catholic faith to inspire young people for social change around the world.

I am energized by the commitment to social justice of youth, including my students at Manhattan College. Many have been inspired by social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, the movement of Dreamers (undocumented youth), the fight against climate change and the Me Too movement.

Sadly, many students, including practicing Catholics, are not approaching these issues from a faith perspective. Connections between their faith and the real world are not being made. This is a major challenge for the Church and social justice movements.

Recently there has been a movement to combat racism, a movement that attracts young people. One of the failures of the Church, in my view, has been to adequately respond to racial injustice. Last summer, faith leaders in Charlottesville sent an appeal to Catholic Church leaders to come support the efforts to say no to racism. As white supremacists were descending on this city, there was only one Catholic, a lay theologian, among a delegation of interfaith leaders standing up against the white supremacists. As Catholics, we need to reflect on how we’re supporting young people in their movements for social change, whether it’s racism, immigration reform, gun control or sexual assault. Church teaching on these issues is very clear.

Mobilizing for the social change embedded in Catholic social tradition is not easy. We live, as Pope Francis reminds us, in bubbles, which makes it hard to see other people as human beings. This is the so-called globalization of indifference.

The Catholic tradition describes the social forces that divide people as situations of social sin or structures of sin. Whether it’s racism, classism, xenophobia or nationalism, it says, “My way of thinking is better than yours.” As a Church, we must ask ourselves if we are working to heal these divisions or contributing to division, hate and social sin by our acts of commission and omission. The Catholic presence on social media, for instance, can be very divisive and hateful, and this impacts the ways young adults see the faith.

In my Orbis book Structures of Grace, I encourage people to realize we cannot break out of structures of sin by ourselves. We need church structures, church movements, church communities, religious congregations and dynamic parishes. We must prioritize efforts at forming vibrant and dynamic faith communities for young people and students.

Where they exist, campus ministry and young adult ministry programs are often helping young people bridge faith and daily life, including introducing youth to the Gospel call to fight hate and injustice. Unfortunately, however, such vibrant programs are not the norm in many parts of the United States. A recent study by the U.S. Bishops Conference indicates the Church has a pastoral presence at only 816 of the 3,200 four-year colleges and universities, a one in four ratio or 24 percent. This means over 70 percent of four-year colleges have no actively directed ministry toward them. For students at community colleges, the numbers are worse.

Christopher Derige Malano, left, and Kevin Ahern, editors of God's Quad, display the Orbis book at its launch in New York in October. The books talks about catholic student communities in the college campus. (Courtesy of K. Ahern)C

Christopher Derige Malano, left, and Kevin Ahern, editors of God’s Quad, display the Orbis book at its launch in New York in October. (Courtesy of K. Ahern)

This also means that large numbers of our young people have little to no direct pastoral engagement at a time when they are forming their moral conscience and deciding if they will continue in the faith or not. The question for me is not why young people are leaving the Church but why any of them would stay when we’re not prioritizing ministry to them.

A few of us, including Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey, have been working to draw attention to the need for dynamic Catholic student communities with a new Orbis book called God’s Quad: Small Faith Communities on Campus and Beyond. The book gathers best practices of Catholic student communities from the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It also includes practical tool kits for how to organize small groups on campus.

The Church needs young people to revitalize our faith community. Social justice movements need the faith perspective the Church can offer. And young people need supportive spaces where they can bridge their faith with social action. This is where we see the value of small faith communities and where the college campus represents, for us, a new mission territory.

Featured Image: Michael St. Pierre, executive director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, addresses panelists at the launch of the book God’s Quad. Student panelists, from left, are: Anna Rosario of Manhattan College, Elinor Rodriguez of Fordham University, Ann E. Killian of Yale University and Ezekiel Tolentino of the University of Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of K. Ahern)



Magazine Past Issues

About the author

Kevin Ahern

Kevin Ahern is an Orbis Books author and assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York City.