|March 19, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 10|
Campus Ministries of Washington & Lee, VMI shares Catholic faith
Catholic campus ministry has an important role in spiritual development at both Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, but rigorous academic and military demands on students at the neighboring campuses in Lexington present challenges for ministry leaders.
A climate of academic competition, combined with a dominant sorority and fraternity culture, has a strong hold on W&L students’ time.
At VMI, cadets live with a highly regimented schedule and restrictions against leaving “post.”
These circumstances “make it difficult to form intentional communities around spiritual life and faith,” explained W.C. “Burr” Datz, longtime campus minister who serves both VMI and W&L.
But committed students recognize the importance of maintaining a connection with their Catholic faith and continually work to keep it alive and available for their fellow students.
Mr. Datz estimates about 500 of VMI’s 1,600 students are Catholic. W&L has 1,760 undergrads and 415 law students. About 280 of those are Catholic.
“Of course, Mass is the big thing as a time we all come together,” said W&L junior Jen Ritter, co-president of CCM on her campus.
The 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at Lexington’s St. Patrick Church is referred to as the student Mass, although the entire community is welcome. VMI and W&L students serve as liturgical ministers and students from both campuses stay afterward for pizza in the parish hall.
“It’s all student run and creates a good community,” Ms. Ritter noted.
VMI Catholic student leaders said they see serving at Mass an important way to be role models and encourage participation among younger cadets.
On a recent Sunday night, several first-year students explained that they don’t have time to be more involved with campus ministry, but want to maintain their ties to the church by regularly attending Mass.
“Otherwise it would be easy to lose touch with the faith,” said W&L freshman Natsuni Alvarez of Salt Lake City, who often serves as a lector.
Getting to Mass is a half-hour walk each way for cadets, but VMI’s Joel Hoisington said, “My God is a priority. I need to have that connection with God in my life.”
The W&L Law School is a third community served by campus ministry. However, third-year law student Andrew Larsen said that besides going to Mass, gathering for faith sharing doesn’t happen for that group.
“Law school is intensely narrowing and very competitive among students,” he explained. “It can be poor soil [for spiritual growth] because you have few occasions to think about anything besides studying law. I see it as a lost opportunity.”
However, the Bethesda, Md. law student said he gets together with Mr. Datz periodically to help keep his spiritual focus.
Father Joseph D’Aurora, pastor of St. Patrick’s, enjoys having the student communities as part of the parish and is gratified to be sacramental minister and provide marriage instruction to student couples and guidance to young men exploring a vocation to the priesthood.
He noted that over the years he has mentored four men who became priests, and two current students have expressed an interest.
“It’s rejuvenated my own priesthood,” Father D’Aurora said.
The students and campus cultures at W&L and VMI are very different from one another. The Sunday student Mass is the main thing the two Catholic faith communities share.
During the week, the VMI Newman Club meets on Tuesday nights on post for spiritual enrichment. W&L’s CCM meets on Wednesday nights.
Sunday evening Mass is where students from both campuses can identify fellow Catholics. Ms. Ritter, a Californian, explained that she keeps an eye out for students she believes may be interested in attending a Wednesday evening CCM program and personally invites people.
“Wednesday night is a big party night at W&L,” she laughed, “so it’s hard to break through those other competing interests. But there are people who are interested in their Catholic faith and it’s up to us to invite them.”
“It’s filling a void and helps me feel connected,” freshman Jack Murphy of Minneapolis said of the Wednesday night gatherings which typically draw 12-15 students.
Programs are planned by Ms. Ritter and co-leader Mike Grimaldi with guidance from Mr. Datz and Christine Winschel, a W&L chemistry professor who serves as faculty mentor.
The group recently studied Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Speakers sometimes include professors who are also members of St. Patrick’s. They may pray the rosary or Liturgy of the Hours together, Ms. Ritter noted.
“It encourages open communication about our faith which is helpful especially on a secular campus,” she said.
Challenges to campus ministry at VMI are a function of the tightly structured, military life of the cadets. But Mr. Datz works with the commandant’s office to allow students to participate in ministry activities.
“The Newman Club struggles with the many policies at VMI, but when we’re successful, it’s a good thing,” said Matthew Waalkes, a 2nd classman (junior) from Waynesboro, a member of the leadership team.
Notably, Mr. Datz and Father D’Aurora have brought Holy Day Masses to VMI’s Jackson Memorial Hall. Those liturgies often attract non-Catholic cadets and St. Patrick Church members to show community support.
Although they must get permission, cadets make the extra effort to participate in off-post ministry such as the recent March for Life in Washington and Encounter With Christ diocesan college retreats.
Mr. Waalkes pointed out that the VMI chaplain must have a non-denominational approach to spiritual matters, “but our Catholic identity is important and it could be lost if we didn’t have the Newman Club as a Catholic presence on campus.”
VMI touts its demanding curriculum as four years of growth, Mr. Waalkes, explained, “and I see the Newman Club’s mission is to augment that with instruction and growth in the faith.”
Junior VMI student Justin Wasno of Beltsville, Md., added, “In a school that’s all about community, the Newman Club is another one to have.”
Mr. Wasno will be commissioned in the Army when he graduates. He values staying in touch with his Catholic faith, explaining, “Having something as a hope and comfort is important.”
Mr. Waalkes said the club’s Tuesday evening discussions include faith matters of particular interest to cadets such as just war theory or what it means to be a Catholic.
Both VMI and W&L “have strong identities with honor, integrity and social conscience,” Mr. Waalkes noted. “Our campus ministries put that into the Catholic context and help produce a whole person of faith with those ideals.”
Mr. Datz agreed. Regarding Catholic ministry and VMI, he explained, “We both want the same thing. They (VMI) want to produce citizen soldiers. We want to develop citizens informed by Catholic social teaching who want to help build a better world.”
The two Catholic groups take advantage of well-established projects of the Shepherd Poverty Program by participating as a ministry in the twice yearly campus-wide Nabor Service Days. Catholic students often take leadership roles in such activities, Mr. Datz pointed out.
Mr. Datz has been campus minister for the two schools for 15 years. A W&L alumnus and former staff member, he knows the college environment intimately and is well-known in the community.
He left campus ministry from 2001 to 2009 to develop a special leadership project at W&L to address what had become critical substance abuse issues in student life.
“Burr is a gift to this campus ministry,” said Ms. Winschel, who was active at St. Michael Parish in Richmond before joining the W&L faculty four years ago.
“Burr keeps it all together and can miraculously communicate with these young adults about the things that concern them,” she said.
Indeed, Mr. Datz believes a valuable part of his role is the informal one involving his personal relationship with students and being visible on both campuses. He keeps his laptop at hand and communications open.
“Being fully present to the students allows me to respond to their needs, and I trust that God’s going to show me the right way,” he said.
Father Michael Boehling, the diocese’s Vicar for Vocations, says that the Sunday Mass for the joint W&L-VMI community is one of his favorite places to celebrate Mass.
“It is a strong vibrant community,” he said.
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