University is a time of major life changes.
It can be a student’s first taste of independence or their first time away from home. For Catholic students, attending a secular institution can be a time that makes or breaks their faith.
“It’s an important time to catch people. It’s when they have the choice to make their faith their own,” said Kellie O’Toole, who co-founded Catholics on Campus at MacEwan University, the first Catholic student group at MacEwan, in September.
“They can choose for themselves if they’ll go to Mass or if they’ll completely fall away from their faith. But now these students have somewhere to go where they can ask questions and discover that side of life for themselves.”
Catholics on Campus offers students a place to share and grow their Catholic identity through fellowship, twice-a-week faith studies and the occasional off-campus event.
O’Toole and Katy Offenberger, both sophomores at MacEwan University, started recruiting for Catholics on Campus at MacEwan University in the fall at an open house that featured all student groups. Now there are 16 students signed up for fellowship and faith studies. Topics include the love of God, the divinity of Christ, the Bible, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“It really does challenge the assumptions that young people are not interested in religion,” O’Toole said. “When MacEwan (University) had the club expo, just us standing there, owning our club, saying we’re Catholic and bringing people into conversation ̶ that alone was an encouragement.”
Students such as Maria Monai-Brophy are happy to be a part of a group of like-minded Catholics.
“For us the Church is at the centre of our lives,” said Monai-Brophy, a fourth-year massage therapy student. “So it can be isolating if you feel surrounded by people where that’s not the centre of their hearts. It’s nice having a group you know has those same values, that same mindset and you can openly talk about these things.”
“This connection has really re-energized me in my faith life. During the weeks you’re stressed out about schoolwork, it’s especially nice. It’s refreshing to step out of your little bubble and be reminded of the bigger picture.”
In December 2018, O’Toole and Offenberger attended a Catholic Christian Outreach ministry conference in Calgary and signed up for the Connect program, which encourages university students to start faith studies.
With the CCO’s help, O’Toole and Offenberger took the reins and established Catholics on Campus. By June of this year they received approvals from the university and the Edmonton Archdiocese and in September held their first event, Theology on Tap, in which students talk about faith over beers.
For Rachel McFadden, Catholics on Campus has brought faith to the centre of her life for the first time.
“My family never really forced me to go to church or anything like that,” said McFadden, who is studying library and information technology at MacEwan. “Reading the Bible or going to Mass was not a routine thing in my life ̶ not at all. But through meeting Kellie and since the faith studies, I’ve been trying to go to Mass every week and as often as I can.”
This kind of life change goes to the heart of the group’s mission.
“The focus of it is to put God at the centre of your life,” said Offenberger. “Our faith is not about checking boxes and meeting a certain mark, it’s about being in a direct relationship with God.
“Especially some of us in programs like nursing or social work – we’re continually confronted with ethical issues,” said the second-year nursing student. “We need the support of other Catholics, and the campus is a perfect place to build those friendships.”
The discussions at Catholics on Campus meetings give Monai-Brophy greater confidence in expressing her faith.
“Growing up Catholic, you know what you believe, but if I was put on the spot to explain why, I felt a bit ill-equipped,” she said. “I’ve picked up so many better tools to explain logically what we think and believe. It gave me some validity to be more willing to express my faith to other people.”
In the next semester, Catholics on Campus plan to continue their faith studies and make Theology on Tap a monthly event. For more information on Catholics on Campus, contact them on Instagram, Facebook or via email at email@example.com.