Welcoming back students is FOCUS of UT group

Catholic young adult ministry is ready to assist those returning to college campuses

By Bill Brewer

College students across the Diocese of Knoxville were greeted back to campus in recent days as the new school year also begins for this age group.

And Catholic centers at East Tennessee State University, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga rolled out the welcome mat for young women and men who are now upperclassmen as well as freshmen who are just beginning their college experience.

FOCUS missionaries at UT-K and UT-C have been busy making sure students of all denominations, but especially Catholics, have friends and supporters who can assist them in any way and at any time.

The FOCUS team at UT-C helped students move back into student housing and set up a campus kiosk with information about the Catholic Center, Masses, and other services available to them in August.

Father Valentin Iurochkin celebrates Mass for University of Tennessee-Chattanooga students in the UT-C Newman Center. Deacon Brian Gabor is kneeling next to the altar.

And Father Valentin Iurochkin, parochial vicar of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and chaplain of the UT-C Newman Center, celebrated Mass for the students as they arrived on campus. Deacon Brian Gabor, who serves at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga and is the Newman Center director at UT-Chattanooga, gave the homily.

Mass was a welcome respite from the stresses of moving back into dorms or apartments, and securing available classes, parking spaces, financial aid, and provisions for day-to-day campus living.

And having friendly FOCUS faces help with some of the chores made the moving-in ordeal better. They are the hands, feet, and heart of Christ in collegiate academia.

David Hamilton, a FOCUS missionary at UT-C, believes the welcome-back efforts of the Newman Center were successful.

“FOCUS missionaries and students were able to encounter over 300 new men and women during the welcome week and move-in. This entailed going out in groups and hauling boxes and furniture into dorms to tabling on campus and sharing about the Catholic Center,” Mr. Hamilton said.

“We hope that these efforts lead students to an interest in our community here so that we may share the joy of life with Christ and His Church,” he added.

Deacon Gabor, in his homily, offered a heartfelt hug from the Newman Center staff to the students and gave them something to think about as they assimilate into a new academic year.

Deacon Gabor admitted that, like their textbooks, the Bible may be hard to read for students, its passages easy to misunderstand.

But he acknowledged that he continues to be a student of Scripture and takes every opportunity to seek out teachers who can enlighten him on the nuances and subtleties of the Bible.

“If you’re returning, welcome back. And if you’re new, welcome,” Deacon Gabor told the students attending the semester’s opening Mass.

“Mama Gabor and I are blessed to work here along with Father Valentin and the FOCUS missionaries. It’s just a blessing to be here, and we want this to be your home away from home,” Deacon Gabor said, referring to his wife, Donna, who is active in assisting the Newman Center and the students it serves.

From left, Ryan, Anna, David, and Karter take part in move-in day on the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga campus in August. Ryan and David are FOCUS missionaries, and Anna and Karter are UT-C students.

FOCUS, or Fellowship of Catholic University Students, provides teams of missionaries to UT-Chattanooga and UT-Knoxville, where young faith leaders provide valuable spiritual and social outreach to students. The FOCUS missionaries work closely with the Catholic centers on both campuses.

FOCUS also has young missionaries on the campuses at the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and Vanderbilt University and Belmont University in Nashville.

Deacon Gabor was preparing the students spiritually for the new school year and encouraged them to dig deeper into their understanding of Scripture just as they do their college studies.

“Scripture can be tough to read, right? I know it is for me. I’m trying to read through it right now. I just finished Isaiah. To tell you the truth, I don’t understand half of what I’m reading in some of those passages. But God has given a gift to many people to understand, and they write books and they do podcasts, and then others will learn from them and they will lead Bible studies for us to grow in understanding,” Deacon Gabor said.

And just as the students, whether incoming freshmen or upperclassmen, take advantage of all opportunities available to them to better know their subject matter, such as tutorials and study groups, the deacon urged them to be as ambitious with their education of the Bible.

“Jesus often talked in parables. We know that, right? And I think for many of us who ask, why did Jesus speak in parables, many of us would answer to make things easy to understand. But that’s not exactly true. His parables, for the most part, have a twist to them. They don’t really make sense. I struggle with some of them,” Deacon Gabor shared.

He pointed to Scripture that often deals with heavy subjects, such as death, infidelity, jealousy, anger, love, and mercy.

“But if we dive into these parables, we see what kind of God we have. Our ways aren’t His ways. He speaks to mercy. What He wants people to do is to come to Him and say, ‘I want to understand. I want to know more,’” he added.

Deacon Gabor spoke of a hunger to learn that is innate in most everyone, to understand what we are reading or hearing. He noted that if it wasn’t for that hunger in him, he probably would not be a deacon.

“And that’s the hunger that all of us should have when it comes to Scripture. All of us here can talk about Adam and Eve. We can talk about Noah’s ark. But if we lined up the figures of the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses. Could you put them in chronological order? Could you explain how they are related? Could you point out the bloodline of Jesus through salvation history?

“I want to encourage you to have that hunger. It is in that hunger that my faith was boosted the most. If it wasn’t for walking around back in the ‘90s with a Walkman and a cassette player, hearing Scott Hahn explain typology and how things are prefigured in the Old Testament, I really don’t think I would be standing here as a deacon,” he remarked.

Deacon Gabor’s epiphany occurred through dedicated study of the Bible and the meanings behind the Scripture, and searching for those who can better make him understand. It’s similar to what every student achieves to get a high grade in a class.

“It was then that I grew in understanding of the reality of this beautiful faith that we’re a part of, that it’s not just a bunch of stories that are kind of weird with a lot of murder, concubines, adultery, incest. All of those things are, yes, weird on the surface, but when you dive into it, you bring out so much more meaning,” he said.

The Newman Center director asked the students at Mass to make spiritual study a part of their semester education.

“When it’s talking about murder or death, it’s speaking about spiritual death. If it’s speaking about adultery, it’s speaking about infidelity to God and bringing false gods into your life,” he said. “But those who are given the wisdom to explain Scripture explain it so we can see the foreshadowing of Jesus and the Church. So, what I want to do is encourage you to be part of a Bible study,” he said.

The FOCUS missionaries lead Bible studies on the campuses where they serve.

Deacon Gabor quoted St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin, who said ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.

“God reveals himself to us through Scripture. My brothers and sisters, let’s not stay ignorant of Christ. Let’s break open the Word, dig in, ask the questions. Why? Why is He talking about that? Why is it hard to understand? Why does it seem strange? Seek the sources to help explain it, and I assure you that you will grow in your faith. I know I did,” he concluded.

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