Catholics are living as missionary disciples in an age when society has abandoned a Christian culture.
Speaking to student leaders on college campuses at the SEEK 2023 conference Jan. 3, Dr. Jonathan Reyes said our culture has been challenged by an overwhelming abandonment of the faith.
Citing Pope Francis, Reyes said, “We are not living in an era of change, but a change of an era.” But while the Gospel message of Christ doesn’t change, how we approach sharing that message with others must change, he said.
Reyes, senior vice president for communications with the Knights of Columbus, was among several speakers addressing college students, who made up about half of the 17,000 attendees at this year’s conference. A former vice president of FOCUS, Reyes founded Christ in the City, a national volunteer and formation program, and was one of the founders of the Augustine Institute of Denver.
“The social changes we have witnessed in recent decades have profoundly altered our way of looking at the world,” Reyes said. At one time, Christianity provided an organizing principle for the social order in the West, but now it’s been replaced by a different message, where Christ is no longer at the center.
It’s important for disciples of Christ to analyze those changes and understand what has happened in order to preach the Gospel to others, Reyes said.
Central to the Catholic vision is the notion that God is love. Reyes reminded students that love is not an emotion, but a willful choice and emptying of self for the good of others.
What we do here on earth has its consequences, but all that we do in our lives is secondary to the eternal life, he said. The smallest acts of love, humility and service are monumental in their consequences. There is also tremendous pride in denying our own failures and not looking within ourselves when we analyze the problems of the world.
Some of us are vulnerable to viewing our earthly lives as being the most important thing over an eternal life with Christ. “Instead of Christianity being the news that puts this life in proper perspective and helps us take a healthy detachment from it in order to love well … we want God to be on our side to make our life here go really well,” Reyes said.
“Our witness to the Gospel is our joy in following Him,” he said. “Let’s avoid making ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ That’s poison to us,” he said. “Yes, let’s identify evil where there is evil. And let’s honor good where there’s good. But the human being in front of you, do you know what it means to fight a human being who opposes you? It’s to bring them to Christ. Find a way, so that they can experience the mercy you have experienced.”
Students from St. Louis attended the collegiate programming, which included separate sessions for men and women and leadership talks. Bruce Ha, a sixth-year physical therapy student at Maryville University, said diving deeper into the truth of Christ and His forgiveness were reasons why he wanted to attend SEEK.
“That is where He will meet me and where I can meet other people to bring them back to Him,” he said. “I want to bring back the forgiving power of Christ.”
Father John Schneier, chaplain of the Newman Center at Maryville and associate pastor at Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield, said SEEK is an opportunity for participants to strengthen their faith formation. “The model that is being done here (FOCUS) is clearly having an effect on a lot of people,” he said. “That’s something we need to learn from, whether in the big picture for the diocese or a parish or even within a youth group — how to form people. There are a lot of people who check a lot of the Catholic boxes but don’t know Christ.”
Katarina Ausley shared how the power of a personal invitation led her to the Church. Ausley, a senior studying psychology and pre-law at Webster University, was invited several years ago by a high school friend to come with her to Mass at a Catholic parish. She began attending RCIA classes as a catechumen (a person who has not yet been baptized) in September at Holy Redeemer Parish in Webster Groves.
“I was really moved, it was like my soul just wanted me to come to the Church and to become close with Jesus,” she said. “I waited for the right time — but there’s no right time — and this past year I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it.’”
Several students attending SEEK with the Newman Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis said speaking openly about their faith with others has been key to evangelizing.
Olivia Crowell, former Newman Center president and recent UMSL graduate, also spoke about the importance of building relationships with others through that openness. “In my classes sometimes we talked about things like birth control or the Blessed Mother. Some of us pray together,” she said. “Even in the workplace, everyone knows I go to Mass every morning. Sometimes we will talk about how Mass went or Bible study.”
College is a critical juncture where young adults are leaving home and making their faith their own. Kate Sanderson, an intern at the Catholic Student Center at Washington University in St. Louis, said it is important to meet students where they are and to let them know they are welcome without judgment.
Something as simple as offering a free dinner, with the opportunity to attend Mass beforehand, makes all the difference. “We get a lot of students who otherwise wouldn’t have walked in the door,” Sanderson said. “They’ll experience Mass maybe for the first time ever, and then come for dinner afterward. That’s a great way to show them that we really want to love our students.”
>> Strengthening yourself to evangelize
Speaker Jonathan Reyes offered several practical takeaways for college students to strengthen themselves in the faith.
• In prayer, ask the Lord if there are any areas of your mind where you feel like you’re not fully converted or thinking about things wrong. If He identifies anything in prayer at that moment, make a commitment to rebuke those thoughts.
• Let the things that shape your mind in the Catholic imaginative vision shape your life. Get to liturgy. Meditate. Read Scripture. Study. FOCUS offers Bible study resources at focusequip.org/ bible-study-resources. The Archdiocese of St. Louis also has evangelization resources at allthingsnew.archstl.org/mission.
• Use small daily mortifications. Put yourself to death. It’s not about you. It’s worth fasting or doing other little things in which you can deny yourself. Pope Benedict XVI once said that love is impossible without daily mortifications.
• Serve people in need. Get out of yourself and serve other people. Don’t serve them as an interesting adventure in your own life to fill out your personality. Do them because you want to learn how to love and forget yourself.
• Build friendships in Christ, in college and afterward. If your friends think differently, they’re going to affect you, and you will start to think differently.