At the University of Virginia, the virus is no obstacle to finding Christ and fellowship.
At the beginning of the semester University of Virginia Catholic chaplain Father Joseph-Anthony Kress was anxious about what ministry in the pandemic would look like. “On a typical weekend we were reaching as many as 600 students a weekend for Sunday Mass. I just wasn’t sure what our student involvement would be like.”
Many chaplaincies throughout the country faced similar challenges and fears. God had something else in store for the students in the Catholic Hoos ministry this fall. “I can’t believe the way that God’s grace has been working through our students,” Father Joseph-Anthony said. “Despite every obstacle, despite every difficulty, God has been faithful, helping us to grow and continue our mission of bringing students to Christ.”
The ministry has seen tremendous changes in the past months. For one, St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, which sponsors the university chaplaincy, recently dedicated a beautiful new church. In addition to the incredible new space for worship, Father Joseph-Anthony has led his students to re-imagine and re-invent their ministry. “We had to do new things. We had to be creative and renew our outreach.”
T-Sup to go
One major change was the suspension of the regular Tuesday Night Supper, a widely-attended weekly community dinner. Student minister Solimar Kwa describes the loss, saying, “I knew that Catholic Hoos was losing a big source of where we do our outreach and build community.” Despite not being able to cook meals, per diocesan regulations, Solimar helped design a new system.
“I proposed a plan that our ministry would have a recipe each week where we would buy the required ingredients for students to pick up and cook. We called this new initiative HelloTsup,” Solimar says. The meal kits included prayers, reflections, and readings, designed to encourage roommates to sit down, share a meal—and whether Catholic or not—have a conversation. It’s been a tremendous success. Solimar joyfully shares, “This is such a beautiful way to build relationships and evangelize within their household, all over a shared home-cooked meal.”
Regardless of the obstacles to outreach, the ministry has seen a significant increase in the number of students participating in small group Bible studies. Last year, around 80 students participated in 12 Bible studies. This year, over 200 students are now involved in 24 Bible studies. FOCUS minister Mary Schneider notes, “I have to say, the short answer to ‘What have we done to find students?’ is really nothing. We’ve been praying for the Lord to provide, and He has.”
Relational ministry has been the key. Mary continues, “We’ve been leaning on the incredible leadership of the students here. This year we don’t have a choice between relational ministry or not; it is all through each individual’s invitation that we’ve gotten to where we are now.” Cultivating lasting and meaningful friendships has animated the student leaders of the Bible studies.
Whether in a safely distanced or online environment, Bible studies provide the opportunity for real encounter. Mary says, “With social distancing, we are starved for socialization, for connection, for encounter.” She emphasizes, “But that’s what our Bible Studies provide in a safely distanced or online setting, and we’ve seen more and more sign up because of that hunger for something more.”
Outreach to athletes
Student minister Patrick Casey has overseen efforts to reach out to Catholic students involved in university athletics. Patrick notes, “Student athletes at UVA tend to largely be involved in their faith, so the Christian athletes end up in Christian athlete fellowship Bible studies generally.” He continues, “We have seen a need and desire among Catholic student athletes to dive deeper into Catholic student community and ministry without losing the component of connecting with teammates.”
Patrick believes athletes are naturally missional. He says, “We end up with new guys being added to the group almost weekly by teammates and roommates.” They do want, though, a place to know and to connect as athletes. Their lives are filled with unique challenges, and they bring those to small groups. With gratitude, Patrick shared, “One nice thing for me has been reaching out to a few athletes who lived in my dorm my first year and watching them dive deeper into their faith; getting texts from them after Bible study makes my whole week.”
Events ministry in pandemic times
The student minister tasked with organizing events, Sophia Van Horn, said that her ministry has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. She recalls, “When we first realized that our Welcome Week events were not going to happen, we had to find new ways to reach students.” Again, she found success by emphasizing the relational.
Sophia recounts, “Personally emailing every first year who came on our radar and getting a head start on Bible studies were a big priority. Rather than using our biggest welcome event, Pig Roast, as a way to reach new students, we were intentional about welcoming each first year at the personal level.”
Some events have found a digital home. “We’ve been leaning on Zoom. We started holding daily Rosaries last semester. We have Tuesday Reflections, Bible Studies, Trivia Nights, and Vision Nights–all of which are held on Zoom,“ Sophia shared.
The ministry has also placed a premium on reaching out through social media. “The digital sphere is something good, if used in the right way,” Sophia noted. Recognizing that students spend lots of time in front of screens, she has worked to establish a human and peaceful culture online. She went on to explain, “Things like daily reflections from the FOCUS missionaries on Instagram and Humans of Catholic Hoos posts on our social media platforms bring the soul of a person to the screen.”
Although Father Joseph-Anthony misses athletics and the large-scale events of the ministry, he recognizes and is grateful to God for all the ways divine grace is at work in the ministry. “Students come. Just the other night several priests heard confessions for hours, meeting students, making Christ available to them. They are hungry, they are seeking the Lord.”
Father Joseph-Anthony also indicated how grateful he is for the efforts of the FOCUS missionaries at UVA and the way that the FOCUS mission has supported and animated his ministry.
When asked what the Spring semester holds, Father Joseph-Anthony just smiles. “It’s in God’s hands,” he insists. “Anything we accomplished this fall is because of his mercy and goodness, and anything he sends this spring will flow from this same love. We have to trust him.”