"Getting Personal"

Article excerpt

I sat in my campus ministry office and looked out the window at the palm trees blowing in the breeze. Outside, students in sunglasses and flip-flops zipped by on skateboards, munched on sandwiches, and sipped cups of coffee on their way to class. Even in late autumn, as much of the United States was preparing for cold weather, students at this university were still enjoying warm, sunny days that are the mainstays of life in this part of California.

On this particular day, I had a question on my mind. I had recently returned from the Faith and Order Commission Plenary meeting in Crete, where many had gathered from around the globe to talk about the future of Christian unity and to work through some of the crucial issues that still divide the Christian churches. Many of the major discussion topics were still swimming in my brain: the nature and mission of the church, ecclesial authority, moral discernment. I love talking about these subjects, and I love ecumenism. Now that I was back home, though, the question before me was how to get the students at this university to care about ecumenism, too.

It's probably helpful to note that I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and am serving as a Protestant chaplain at a Catholic Jesuit university. I am part of a team of campus ministers, the rest of whom are Roman Catholic: two are Jesuit priests, and five others are laypersons. Among my responsibilities is to encourage ecumenical awareness and formation, and to promote Christian unity.

In the United States, church-related universities are common. As missionary movements moved west and settled across the country, many denominations and traditions established institutions of higher learning. Though our federal "separation of church and state" prohibits public universities from being religiously affiliated, private universities can maintain ties to their churches of origin and promote religious education alongside other coursework. Degrees from public and private universities are equivalent, and students are free to attend whichever they choose. While some students do opt to attend private, church-related institutions because of their religious affiliation, most students continue to select universities based on multiple factors, such as course offerings, location, prestige and degrees offered.

This means that, despite the university's Catholic identity, only about half our students come from a Catholic home. Others come from Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox or other upbringings, or from families of mixed religious heritage, or often of no religion at all. Meanwhile, the religious heritage of a particular student doesn't necessarily mean that student is interested in practising their religion while at the university.

This was the context in which I was trying to spark ecumenical enthusiasm. And, fresh from my experience in Crete, I was brainstorming about the 2010 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and wondering what activities to plan for the university.

But a deeper question was gnawing at me, too: how, in general, do we make Christian unity both interesting and important to young people in a new generation?

In January 2009, in celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I had put together a week of unity-focused activities for our students. My campus ministry colleagues and I led a prayer service that brought together a small group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox students, faculty and staff around the theme of baptism; I had organized a special ecumenical Bible study; I helped Orthodox students lead prayer and share their tradition with Catholic students; I gave a presentation on unity to the conservative evangelical Christian students; I offered a Scripture reflection at the Roman Catholic student Mass on Sunday evening. Almost all the activities I organized in 2009 were planned around traditional divisions of denomination and communion. …