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March 7, 2011 | Volume 86, Number 10

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photo: The Newman House, the home of Catholic Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech, sits on grounds near the campus.Virginia Tech Newman Community: No task done alone

Six members of Virginia Tech’s Newman Community leadership council stood before the altar and introduced themselves to a packed house at War Memorial Chapel at the first campus Mass of the new year.

Then the Director of Campus Ministry, Father John Grace, stood, extended his arm in a gesture of presentation and thanked the group for offering their considerable individual gifts in service to the community.

“But one thing they are not allowed to do,” he said turning back to the congregation, “is to do any task alone.”

He emphasized, “That’s because here at Newman Community, it’s all about teamwork and value. The church is not task oriented. It’s about relationship and relationship with God.”

photo: The War Memorial Chapel on campus is the site where Mass is celebrated.It was the semester-opening weekend, when Tech’s Catholic campus ministry, the Newman Community, traditionally invites students to become more involved in its life and work.

Information cards were passed out for students to indicate their talents and ministry interests. But Father John’s evangelical fervor for the message of serving Jesus in community suggested this was more that simply sign-up Sunday.

“The work of Jesus is always done in community, because community is where we work out our faith and advance the kingdom of God,” he said, then pausing for emphasis, “and in that, no person in this room is insignificant.”

Indeed, community and dynamic, shared leadership are at the heart of the large, active campus ministry at Tech that is, by all accounts, student driven.

The Newman Community serves an estimated 7,500 students as Catholics make up about 25 percent of the university’s total enrollment. Some 900 people, mostly students, attend the three Masses every Sunday in the non-denominational War Memorial Chapel located at the end of Tech’s drillfield.

Dr. Joe Schetz and his wife Katherine are usually among them, part of a tiny “kind of permanent community” of faculty and staff. The couple has been attending Mass at Newman for nearly 40 years.

A professor of aerospace engineering, Dr. Schetz said, “I believe it’s important to interact with students in faith community.”

In size, Newman compares to the largest parishes in the Richmond Diocese. It’s been the home of the Catholic faith community on the Blacksburg campus for more than 80 years.

photo: Two unidentified students bring up the offertory during Mass.It also has served as an able proving ground for developing committed parish ministers in this diocese and beyond. David Ballintyn, full time campus minister at Newman, said that’s one of the purposes of campus ministry.

Students grow through ministry and leadership in the Newman Community, and take that experience of faith to their parishes, Ballintyn explained, pointing out that most of the school’s students are from Virginia and stay in Virginia after graduating.

“Sure, when they move on to a parish the externals will be different, but it’s the same faith community,” he said.

“We have a four-year window to share with them the vivacity and dynamism of the Catholic faith. Then they can transmit that same spirit anywhere. It is our mission to send forth,” he said.

A Notre Dame grad, Ballintyn has a master’s degree in theology and background in parish ministry. In his first year and a half at Newman he’s been impressed by the significant role students have.

“Theirs is not a token voice,” he said.

photo: Father John Grace greets John Sturniolo as he arrives for Sunday Mass.Faith, service and community are the three pillars of the community’s mission, explained Fr. John, as he’s popularly known.

Those pillars — along with strong student leadership — are the ministry principles he has advocated for the eight semesters he’s pastored the Newman Community.

They are principles he’s pushed for two decades in campus ministry, including 16 years at James Madison University. They are principles that have resonated with the student ministers themselves.

“There are so many aspects of involvement at Newman that each person can find ways to plug into the community to use their own gifts with their peers who share their faith,” said junior Alex Obenauer, one of this year’s two student campus ministers.

“It’s all partnership here,” Fr. John stressed. “We all have our roles. My job is to help students understand their gifts and create opportunities for them to use them in the community.”

Elise Rokisky, a junior from Roanoke, is the other student campus minister. She said she was attracted to active involvement at Newman by the fact that ministry is student led.

“I saw my peers taking the initiative to be involved and making it meaningful by taking their faith into their own hands,” she said.

Mr. Obenauer agreed, “Everything is student-driven. Father John is a fantastic priest, but he insists on student leadership and helps us develop as leaders and call and encourage others to leadership.”

One way a campus faith community differs from a parish is that by necessity there is a continuous turnover in leadership. It’s also the reason a large part of Father John’s role is what he describes as “spiritual development and guidance in the life of the community.”

He said, “If we have 20 strong leaders, they impact 200 more people. But for us to be successful, the students have to step up and say I want to be part of this and share my gifts.”

Ms. Rokisky explained that the students themselves discern new leaders.

“We do it with prayerful thought,” she said. “We try to make a good assessment for putting people in the right place. We look at the gifts we see in people and then approach them saying, ‘This is what the community sees in you.’ It’s empowering.”

Apparently so. John Sturniolo, a sophomore from Stafford, was asked tphoto: Two unidentified students bring up the offertory during Mass.his year to lead liturgical ministry.

“I was apprehensive, but to be asked made me think they saw something,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to drive my own faith.”

Sean Haslip, an architectural grad student from Williamsburg, also is full time staff as Young Adult Campus Minister. His primary task is to provide support to all the student leaders.

“Seeing the impact of Newman Community on people in their faith and relationships inspires you,” he noted. “To define this place, I use the word ‘mutuality,’ because here there are so many people at the same point in their lives striving to help each other. And wherever you are with God, you’re welcome.”

He added, “The community of faith is what it’s all about. You may have ups and downs, but it’s in the community that you know God’s constancy.”

Ms. Rokisky explained, “Our faith is primary in all we do. We are not task driven.

“Before we start planning or anything, we ask what are the needs, what are the gifts we have and what do we offer, so we make sure we are serving one another. We are pushing servant leadership and in this way we are portraying the body of Christ. It has a ripple effect.”

Added Mr. Obenauer, “In bringing all our gifts and pooling our resources to share our faith, it creates a presence on campus, and we are bringing God to the whole Virginia Tech community.”

“We don’t try to push (to the larger community) what we are,” Ms. Rokisky noted. “Instead, we build the community from within, from who we are, and that is what is displayed.”

photo: Student leaders, from left, are Nick Fugaro, student campus ministers Elise Rokisky and Alex Obenauer, and Andrea Morrison and Nicole Catalfamo.What people at Tech see is a faith community constantly bustling with activity at the Newman House on the edge of campus where the ministry also has its offices.

Mr. Ballintyn estimates some 60 small groups each gather at the house every week for Scripture-based faith sharing in the “RENEW” program.

Other Christian formation includes occasional retreats and spiritual workshops. RCIA and confirmation classes also meet weekly as does the leadership council.

Then there are the Alternate Spring Break groups (ASBs, they are called) that meet regularly for about 10 weeks in preparation for their mission trips. While Newman has an active, ongoing service ministry, ASBs have become the core.

This year seven different groups — some 80 students — will serve communities in need in the U.S. as well as Haiti and Mexico. The Newman ASBs are conscientiously underpinned by faith and Catholic social teaching, and the students’ preparation includes much prayer and study beforehand.

Students’ experiences on the mission trips often draw new people into Newman and deepens the commitment of those already involved.

“It’s more than just service,” Mr. Obenhauer explained. “We reflect on how what we are doing is part of our faith, and to experience that with others creates a unique bond when you come back.”

“Our society tends to trivialize service,” Father John said. “But with us, it is because we believe in the value of the human person that we do service and that we do it as community.”

He believes such sense of purpose, rooted in sharing the work of Christ, is what has given Newman’s ASBs particular prominence in the Tech community at large. And the Newman ASB groups have earned a respected reputation in the places they’ve served as well.

Father John is often invited to speak to fraternities and other campus organizations about how Newman does its ASBs.

“They see something different in our groups and they want that,” Ms. Rokisky explain.

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