When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last year, maintaining community became a top goal for college campus ministers in the Diocese of Trenton and beyond.
The quest could be said to reflect St. John Paul II’s 1987 observation that even in “the context of changing and challenging times,” Catholic universities and scholars “bear so much promise under the action of the Spirit of truth and love.”
Such was the case for Jeff Schaffer, director of campus ministry at Lakewood’s Georgian Court University, who explained that it was a priority to go virtual as quickly as possible to keep students connected to each other and their faith. Over the past year, offerings have included livestream liturgies, Masses, prayer services and more.
“The presence of the pandemic did not deprive me of the experience to participate in events and programs,” said GCU student Jhelaine Palo.
The flexibility of the online format, she said, has been a great advantage since her typical schedule would have limited her ability to attend retreats and programs.
For example, a recent online retreat, she said, “allowed me to share my faith with others, expanding to other components of my faith such as service and social justice. It reminded me that faith is more than just contemplation. It also involves action.”
Cristina D’Averso-Collins, director of Catholic ministry at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, said the students and ministry team continue to adapt to the pandemic’s restrictions.
“When it [the pandemic] started, we met online once a week with the students,” she said. As the pandemic wore on, there were luncheon meetings in a video setting. Speakers included Dr. Edward Sri, the noted theologian who appears regularly on Eternal Word Television Network.
The campus ministry also launched a podcast and recently recorded a Lenten episode, and the students gather once a week for Lectio Divina Scripture readings. They are also invited to attend Sunday Mass during Lent at nearby St. Michael Church, where D’Averso-Collins is a parishioner and serves as a cantor.
“The students do need each other,” she said. “Being able to share sacramental graces is such an important part of our culture.”
Meeting the Challenge
Across the nation, continuing to foster college campus communities during COVID-19 is viewed as a necessity for students dealing with the loss of in-person classroom and social relationships. As such, creating virtual ministries for higher education was a key subject of the recent annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, held online in early February.
The speakers – administrators from Catholic universities across the nation – focused on visions such as online liturgies accompanied by email, blog and video communication. Webinars, retreats and a variety of programs augmented by virtual office hours for students with spiritual and emotional needs were recommended.
“The pandemic is our moment, a time to reground ourselves in mission and express our love of learning, focus on our charisms and recover the gifts of the communal spirit with healthy assistance from technology,” said Shannon Green, director of the CSJ Institute at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles.
Online assistance is something GCU has found helpful in more ways than one.
“Last spring, we did a series of short video reflections that were posted on YouTube that were quite popular,” Schaffer said. “We plan to do another series for [the annual] Critical Concerns Week,” March 18-24.
GCU’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process went online, too, he noted. There were several virtual retreats on the university’s educational platform throughout the school year, including “Leadership for Social Transformation,” “How Long O Lord?” during Advent, and “Mardi Gras to Lent: From Feasting to Fasting.” The university has also focused on the stress the pandemic has caused students.
“The counseling department has made efforts to make themselves available for virtual sessions,” Schaffer said. He noted that the university staff is mindful of the strain students are feeling in these “uncharted waters” – not just from school, but from family and societal issues as well.
An Online Community
As students reflected on their virtual faith sharing experiences during the pandemic, it was apparent that the efforts to foster community and faith have proved fruitful.
“This has really been an uplifting moment,” said Missionary Sister of the Precious Blood Pascaline Musyoka, a first-year transfer student at Georgian Court University.
“While the pandemic paralyzed every other activity, I had the privilege of participating in almost all the spiritual activities, which happened to relieve me from the stress-condensed environment of having to be glued to a machine,” said Sister Pascaline, who is from Kenya.
Speaking of a retreat experience, she said, “[It] was very impressive because I felt as though this was a family coming together despite the distance existing between us. Unknown to each other physically, meeting online was so consoling and encouraging. There was much to gain from these opportunities that I can hardly express.”
Abigail A. Miller, president of the board of students of the Catholic Campus Ministry at Monmouth University and its pro-life chair, said that when the lockdown first began, she felt disconnected from the ministry.
“Many of the students were at home in different states when the semester started,” she said, “but things improved when the online sessions began.”
She continued, “People started thinking of these ideas, speakers started to appear and there was our weekly Lectio Divina which Cristina leads. It’s a great time through conversation. Things feel much more normal than they did.”