Father Andrew Auer met up with a handful of students at Shakespeare’s Pizza near the University of Missouri-Columbia campus.
Over a couple of extra-large pizzas and salad, the group unwound after a long day of classes, sharing stories and catching up with one another as they anticipated a break the following week for Thanksgiving.
Several months into his assignment, Father Auer had eased into his new role as a full-time associate pastor at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia. It’s the first time in several decades that a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Louis has been assigned to serve at the Newman Center at Mizzou.
After he was ordained in 2019, Father Auer found himself connecting with college students while he was an associate pastor at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville. He and the parish’s youth minister made several trips to Mizzou to meet with Catholic students. That expanded to a series of college nights during summer and winter breaks, which continue and are open to any college student.
While priests from the archdiocese have long ministered at Newman Centers on campuses in St. Louis, Father Auer researched and found that there are close to 10,000 students (including undergraduate and graduate) from St. Louis at Mizzou each year, far surpassing the number of St. Louis students attending universities here. Those individuals, regardless of faith, are part of the archdiocese’s flock, he stressed.
Father Auer said that it’s important to be where St. Louis students are, adding that the majority of young Catholics leave the Church in college, even before they make their way back into parish life.
“In the archdiocese, I was seeing that we aren’t actually following kids all the way through their young formation,” he said. “They’re involved in Catholic grade schools, extremely involved in Catholic high schools, and then we would send our college students off to be formed elsewhere and just hope they returned formed and ready to go in our parishes. We need to stop the bleeding before we can treat a different disease. I am big on diagnosing the problem before we can address the solution.”
Permission to dream
When Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski announced the All Things New pastoral planning initiative, he encouraged Catholics to dream big about the future of the Church in St. Louis.
Father Auer took that message to heart.
All Things New drove him to closely examine what he was doing through his unofficial ministry to college students — and why. “It was a hard thing for me to see so many young adults fall away from the faith” during the college years, he said, adding that he watched as friends from his Catholic grade and high schools — including classmates who went on to Mizzou — left the Church.
During a visit to Columbia in 2021, he asked Father Paul Clark, a friend from the seminary ordained for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, what he thought about having a priest from St. Louis assigned to the Newman Center.
“He was juggling like six jobs and was very overwhelmed,” Father Auer recalled. “He told me that it would help a lot,” adding that Father Clark was spending much of his time with
St. Louis students when he was assigned at the Newman Center.
“That gave me permission to dream about it more,” Father Auer said.
Developing a sense of community
Katie Williams visited with friends one morning in November as she waited for the weekday noon Mass to begin at the Newman Center. The junior psychology major from St. Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood regularly attended Sunday Mass and was involved in some youth group activities. But when she arrived at Mizzou, she didn’t have a specific plan to stay involved in her faith.
While on campus, Katie reconnected with Clare Campbell, a friend she had met during their youth group days. She joined a Bible study that Clare led at their sorority, Pi Beta Phi, and they became friends.
“Clare would invite me every week, and I began to see her more as a friend than a spiritual leader,” she said. “She helped me to trust her more with my faith and talk to her more about that.” Clare also told her about the college nights that Father Auer was organizing back in St. Louis during the breaks and invited her to attend.
Katie now leads a Bible study at Pi Beta Phi. She said Father Auer “has a heart for college students but also has a huge desire for people to know Christ and to be a disciple and live that every day.”
Community is essential for students building a faith identity beyond high school. But Katie said she’s observed Father Auer also meeting students where they are on campus regardless of their involvement at Newman. “I have seen him while I am going to class and on campus, meeting up with students,” she said. The Newman Center’s community and ministries are important, but “we also need outreach to the people who don’t find a home at Newman and to meet them exactly where they’re at, and that’s what he does.”
College is a prime time where students have more availability and a willingness to be molded in the faith, which they’re encouraged to carry on into adulthood.
“The big word is ‘opportunity,’” Father Auer said. “The students are so desirous to learn. They’re in a new environment away from Mom and Dad. I find them to be extremely teachable, formable. Every day I wake up and see how much opportunity there is, and that gives me lots of fire.”
Studies have shown that a college student’s decisions and habits formed during the first weeks on campus can define the rest of their college experience. Students are detaching from their parents, figuring out meals on their own and adjusting to the rigors of their studies.
“They don’t necessarily have firm foundations, so what do they have to hold on to?” he asked. “That makes you really [susceptible] to really good things or really bad things.”
At the Newman Center, Father Auer works closely with pastor Father Daniel Merz, a priest of the Jefferson City Diocese, and a staff of more than 20 and several Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries. Newman also operates as a parish, drawing in about 850 families from Columbia and surrounding areas while also ministering to students, faculty and staff at Mizzou, Columbia College and Stephens College.
Making the faith their own
Amid a busy fall semester, Abby Obert found herself rising before 7 a.m. to attend a three-day “crash course” on prayer led by Father Auer. The sophomore occupational therapy major from Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie didn’t know anyone at Newman when she arrived but has since made connections with others on her own and through Father Auer.
“Faith in college is a lot different — it took a lot of maturing in different ways,” she said. “It’s not ‘having’ to go to things and actually having to choose it. It was also not knowing anyone at the Newman Center, and that was a really big step for me — putting myself out there and trying to make friends and find my place there.”
Beyond helping students connect with one another, Father Auer sees his role as guiding them to make the faith their own as they enter adulthood.
“If you form kids in college, when they get back to their parishes or whatever communities they’re living in … they should have everything they need: a robust and established prayer life, a love for the sacraments, community in Christ, knowledge of the truth and a readiness to share the Gospel,” Father Auer said. “I hope that coming out of college they have what they need to practice a saintly and virtuous life. It’s absolutely possible — we just have to start dreaming about it and relying on the Lord.”