By Bridget McCormack-Finley
On the first Sunday of a new semester on the Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) campus, students soak in the late summer sun and get their bearings as they return to their university home. They reconnect with friends and prepare to embark on another academic year filled with possibility.
At the Newman Center, the university’s Catholic Campus Ministry building, the homecoming feels especially joyful. This is the first Mass to be celebrated here since pandemic restrictions forced the restriction of student gatherings and the temporary closure of this space last year.
The voice of Father Tom Farrell, pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church in Richmond and chaplain of EKU’s Newman Center, booms over the hum of gathering students, and Alanna Sininger’s eyes twinkle from above her mask as she distributes missalettes.
Where they are
Sininger is the director of youth and collegiate ministries for St. Mark Catholic Church and has just begun her 12th year of serving as the campus minister at EKU’s Newman Center. Even after interacting with thousands of students over the course of her career, she readily acknowledges how much she continues to learn each year — especially as the community continues to navigate the pandemic.
“I’m discovering more and more that it’s not about what my plans are, but meeting the students where they are in their journey and walking with them and helping them grow in their faith,” Sininger says. “Every year, I think I have an idea of where I want to take this. Then the students come in, and I realize they might need catechesis, or maybe they have a stronger desire for service. So I might pitch my idea out, then roll with it — because we have to serve their needs to draw them in and bring them back here.”
The cornerstone of the Newman’s Center’s ministry is Sunday Mass, which draws about 85 attendees each week, the vast majority of them students. In addition to Mass, the community has a monthly Sunday supper, weekly adoration, adult faith formation and RCIA, social gatherings and service opportunities. Students are able to connect with Catholic peers and faculty at all of these events — building connections and community on a campus that hosts a relatively small number of Catholics.
“I would be afraid to see what would happen if we didn’t have this facility on campus,” Sininger says. “College is a vital time for these students to be able to practice their faith, to have opportunities to grow deeper in their faith — without that, I think some of the distractions in life would get in the way.”
Michael Bayer, recently named the director of youth, young adult, and campus ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, echoes the need for a ministry that seeks to meet young people where they are during a busy and transformative period in their lives.
“College campus ministry is one of the most urgent and impactful investments we can make as a Church,” Bayer says. “Young adults show up on college campuses, eager to expand their understanding of subjects like chemistry, computer science, and mechanical engineering, and it is our hope that we can accompany them in growing into a deeper understanding of the faith.”
The power of community
One of those young adults is Zach Weston, a sophomore who hails from the Louisville area and is deeply invested in the Newman Center community. Weston was raised Catholic, growing up in a setting that nurtured and supported his faith. Leaving home and starting college — especially as the pandemic limited students’ opportunities to connect with each other — meant Weston and his peers had to make a special effort to continue growing in faith. Sininger and the Newman Center at EKU were vital resources for this.
“If I didn’t have the Newman Center, I really don’t know where I’d be in my faith,” Weston says. “I don’t think I’d be trying to intimately know God and love God.”
Last year, the Newman Center provided a space for students to gather safely — whether that was for prayer and reflection, or simply to talk, offer support, and find things to laugh about in the midst of a challenging time. The sense of community that pervades the space is a large part of what keeps students coming back to invest in themselves, their friendships, and their relationships with God.
“The students are the face of God to me because I admire the community they build with each other. They are so dedicated and so committed to their faith,” Sininger beams as she talks about the students she leads.
“There’s not a stranger in the house when they leave Mass,” Sininger continues. “The energy this place has is unbelievable. I wish anybody who’s doubting their faith would come to Mass and feel the energy of the students. It would renew just about anyone.”
Weston also feels the unique energy of this place and community, a collection of students from various backgrounds who are rooted together in Christ.
“We’re all unified in that we’re Catholic and we’re students at EKU,” he explains. “We’re so diverse everywhere else — some of us play sports, some of us like art, some of us are into comic books. That’s all very different, but we’re all friends, we all come together, solely because we’re Catholic. And I think that speaks to the power of the faith and what we’ve got going on here.”
With a firm foundation of faith and community, Weston and his peers are eager for what comes next in the Church.
“I know 40-something people who are Catholic or want to be Catholic, who are hungering for the faith — not just to know, but to love and serve,” Weston says with conviction. “And we’re ready for that. We’re ready for that responsibility. You can lean on us young people.”
After walking alongside thousands of developing Catholic leaders, Sininger enthusiastically agrees.
“They are not the future of the Church — they are the Church. And they need to understand that they are not just needed, but they are wanted,” Sininger says. “They are wanted in the Church. They have a voice in the Church. Their ideas matter.”