UT-Chattanooga students savor their education on Catholicism and Christianity; Bishop Stika offers a pep talk
By Emily Booker
Younger generations often are accused of being entitled, individualistic, and seeking instant gratification. There is worry that millennials and Gen Z are abandoning traditional customs, including their faith.
But some young adults are seeking faith. And the faith they want is an authentic, deeply rooted, and devotional one.
For Catholic students at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, the Newman Center offers a wellspring of Christian community and faith formation during the sometimes hectic and stressful years of college life.
During a visit to the university’s Newman Center on March 29, Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated Mass and spoke with students about the struggles that come with college and confronting different viewpoints and lifestyles than the ones they were raised with.
“People who challenge us can threaten us, in terms of our attitudes about life or attitudes about relationships or our relationship with God. College does that, too, doesn’t it, when you go to university? Sometimes you go in there and you’re a little confused,” he said.
But Bishop Stika also advised the students that being challenged can be good. College is a time of growth, when students will decide who they are and what they believe as young adults.
“We belong to something greater than ourselves. We belong to the Church. We belong to humanity. We belong to the world that surrounds us,” he said.
The Newman Center helps Catholic students face those challenges and grow in their faith.
Deacon Brian Gabor and his wife, Donna, are the Newman Center directors, and they work to make sure the center offers students a safe and supportive home away from home to study, pray, or just relax.
“It’s a great group,” Deacon Gabor said. “They’re very faith-filled, and they’re hungry to learn more about their faith.”
The center has grown dramatically in the past few years, and Deacon Gabor credits that growth to the students enthusiastically embracing their Catholicism.
It all started with a Bible study.
Two years ago, a few of the women at the Newman Center formed a weekly Bible study. Newman Center resident Katie McDowell said it was there that they realized they wanted the center to celebrate its Catholicism.
“Before, we were kind of trying to act like the other Christian groups that were here, doing things like them and trying to be more like the other groups on campus,” she said. “But then we realized that we’re Catholic and we’re different, so whenever we started going deeper into saying the rosary or doing the Liturgy of the Hours or doing Mass more often or going to adoration — that was something that totally changed everything here.”
“We’ve started doing adoration on Friday nights,” student Avery Grant said. “So we’ll do adoration from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and then you’re like, ‘OK, it’s Friday, we’re in college, none of us are going to bed for a lot of hours anyway.’ So we’ll throw a bonfire outside, and we’ll just sit out on the porch ‘til all hours of the night and just kind of hang out.”
By revolving its activities around Catholic practices such as adoration and the rosary, the Newman Center attracted more Catholics on campus. The women’s Bible study eventually had to split into two groups. The men began their own group, called Mantopia, where they discuss philosophy and theology with Father Colin Blatchford, who is the chaplain.
Newman Center President James Sowder credits the men’s and women’s groups for forming the strong friendships that has helped the center grow and remain faith-focused.
“I think for the most part, the people in my generation get a pretty bad rep for not being very intellectual or for not being very passionate about things, especially when it comes to matters of faith … I know so much more about Catholicism from being at the Newman Center for a year and a half than I do from, like, anything before that,” he said.
At the center, discussions on apologetics can spring up at pizza parties or The Office marathons. The students have found a balance between study and levity.
“There are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of here with this short amount of time that we have with the Newman Center as our home,” Mr. Sowder said. “There are a lot of really, really good people here, and we have a lot of really in-depth conversations. I’ve never met kids who I know who are like the kids at the Newman Center. They’re really special.”
A particular challenge for the Newman Center and other college ministries is the transitory nature of students. Every few years brings a new crop of students while its older members move on to their post-grad lives.
“It’s tough to see them move off, to graduate and move off, because we do become a family here,” Deacon Gabor said. “That is a challenge of this kind of ministry as opposed to the parish ministry where people are usually there for the long term. Here, four years, maybe five, and then they move on,” added Deacon Gabor, who also serves St. Jude Church in Chattanooga.
But the time in college is formable, and students need a solid respite from the distractions and temptations of modern, young adult life.
“I kind of determined my freshman year that I didn’t want to lose my faith, so I knew that if I surrounded myself with really good people, that it would be really easier to keep strong in my faith and be able to grow in a community,” Miss McDowell said.
Miss Grant agreed. “Especially in college I’ve found that it’s so important to have other friends striving for virtue and striving for holiness and just lifting one another up,” she said.