Former President George H.W. Bush spoke several times about America benefiting from community and volunteer groups that he called “a thousand points of light.”
Bush, who adopted Texas as his home, could have been talking about a place in the Lone Star State that seems regularly to churn out thousands of “points of light.” Those “points of light” are conscious that they are merely reflecting the Light of Christ in whatever situation they find themselves as they go through life.
That’s the basic aim of St. Mary’s in College Station, Texas, the parish serving the Catholic student ministry at Texas A&M and nearby Blinn College.
“Our mission is to form apostles in the Church and the world, so our programs are designed around this desire to send out apostles into the world,” said Fr. Will Straten, the 43-year-old pastor of St. Mary’s. “We could say our programs here are focused on worshiping God, first and foremost. Everything comes out of the Eucharist.”
In other words, Christ is at the center of the Catholic campus ministry in College Station. So much so that every day of the week, from early morning to late at night, aside from Masses and prayer services, St. Mary’s has Christ in the Eucharist seated on the throne of the altar for anyone to come and spend time in prayer and adoration.
And they do come.
“There’s adoration going on all the time. If you popped in right now, you’d see 10-15 students just sitting in there, adoring,” said Mark Knox, director of campus ministry.
“There’s encouragement for students to really encounter Christ first and foremost in the Eucharist,” Fr. Straten said. “It’s not so much about programs but about where is Christ leading you or guiding you.”
Current “Aggie Catholics” — the moniker comes from the nickname for students at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University — are not only getting their fill of faith and formation in the many activities St. Mary’s has to offer; they’re also witnessing a major expansion of the ministry. Construction workers are laying the foundation of a new church that will double the seating capacity for Mass and other liturgies to about 1,500.
St. Mary’s serves about 17,000 Catholic students, which represents about a quarter of A&M’s enrollment. It’s regarded as one of the most successful college campus ministries in the country. One metric observers point to is the number of priestly and religious vocations that come from St. Mary’s. Fr. Straten himself is an alumnus.
“We send about eight to 10 a year into religious life,” Knox said. “We send about 20 FOCUS missionaries back into FOCUS [the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which operates at St. Mary’s]. If you looked at the Pines Catholic Camp or the LifeTeen camps or any of those, you’ll notice that a quarter to a half of those who are volunteering there or working there for summer camps or anything else, it’s Aggie students,” Knox said. “We send a number of students to other missionary organizations, like St. Paul Outreach.”
Alison Tate, Director of the Diocese of Austin’s Department of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry said, “We recognize St. Mary’s as a very successful program.”
“It’s a very solid church-going culture in College Station, which has been very supportive,” she said. “The culture of the community and the university itself is very supportive of the religious lives of the students.”
St. Mary’s supports that spiritual life in a number of ways, offering multiple opportunities for students to get involved. The ministry doesn’t just wait for students to show up but ramps up its outreach during late summer’s “Howdy Week,” when new Aggies are arriving on campus and being introduced to all the A&M traditions — including the preferred use of “Howdy” as a greeting.
“We handed out about 700 freshman shirts this year, in about two days,” Knox said. “Students walked in to get a shirt, we gave them a welcome packet and a tour around to see what’s here, and invited them to come to Connect and John 15, which is our freshman organization, and told them about all the other things we have to offer.”
Connect, a two-day orientation retreat, is a “huge initiative that really engages the incoming students as soon as they arrive,” he said. St. Mary’s then invites the student to join John 15, a student-run organization specifically for the formation of freshmen in the Christian life.
“They spend the whole year just kind of going through a conversion experience and encountering the Lord and getting the tips and tricks for how to stay faithful,” Knox explained. “We have a whole curriculum they can follow, and at the end of the year they can choose whether they’re going to go into a different organization or be a small group leader for John 15 or whatever it is they’re looking to do.
“If they do stay in John 15 as a sophomore there’s just a real deepening of formation, and if they go to another organization — primarily home groups is where we put them, which is meant to be a group for students who are looking for a home — we’re currently growing that ministry right now — but that will basically engage people from having no friends and not involved at all to really being apostles for the Church in the world.”
He said students are encouraged to not only attend Mass but also to be involved in at least one organization or prayer experience, which could be anything from praise-and-worship groups to mission trips to music ministry. Knox said there are over 3,500 students who are engaged in at least one activity at St. Mary’s other than going to Mass on Sunday.
“A lot of us joke that we’re getting a degree at St. Mary’s, rather than Texas A&M because of the amount of formation we receive,” said Julia Wargo, a senior majoring in communications and philosophy.
A vocations culture
Tate said that one thing that makes the ministry unique is that it “consistently supports a vocations culture.” In addition to extensive discernment programs and working closely with diocesan priests and the diocesan vocations office, priests from various religious orders make regular visits and give spiritual direction. “So the students get a lot of exposure to vocations discernment,” Tate said.
Katherine Stoeckl, a senior philosophy major and president of the Thomistic Institute chapter at A&M, appreciates the presence of the Apostles of the Interior Life, a community of consecrated women whose apostolate includes spiritual formation.
“Part of our ability to have an emphasis on discernment — in addition to the demographic we have (18- to 22-year olds, who generally have to figure out what to do with their lives) — the sisters provide spiritual direction, as part of their primary apostolate,” Stoeckl said. “It’s about growing in prayer. From growing in your relationship with God comes the desire to do his will. And then you have a desire for discernment.”
Fr. Charlie Garza, a pastor in the Diocese of Austin, agreed that St. Mary’s fosters a strong vocations culture. “In a lot of [colleges] you have to hide it, like it’s weird that you want to be a priest. At St. Mary’s it was a very normal thing,” said Fr. Garza, who graduated from Texas A&M in 2002. “There have been more priests who have come out of St. Mary’s than out of Notre Dame in the last 30 years.”
He noted, though, that the vocations culture at St. Mary’s is about more than priesthood and religious life.
“Some of my friends I continue to keep in touch with have very strong marriages,” Garza said. “So it wasn’t just about producing vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but about producing the vocation of ‘everyone is called to holiness,’ not just personally but also to help inspire others to live out the universal call to holiness, as the Second Vatican Council especially calls us to.”
Recently, the center started to implement formal programs for students who are dating in college to get them to consider marriage as a vocation.
Fr. Garza and Fr. Straten were students at A&M when Bishop Michael J. Sis of San Angelo, Texas, was pastor, and Fr. Garza attributes his priestly vocation in large part to his experience with St. Mary’s and its pastor.
When then-Fr. Sis was assigned to St. Mary’s in 1992, he said in a recent interview, he wanted to make it a welcoming place but also one that was identifiably Catholic.
“Catholic students at Texas A&M back then — and probably now — were sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place,” Bishop Sis said. “On the one hand, they had to deal with proselytization by various fundamentalist Christian organizations — people were telling them ‘You’re not really a true Christian if you’re Catholic.’ There are some very powerful Protestant ministries there who were always happy to steal our sheep, if they could.
“On the other hand, the Catholic students had to struggle with what you might call the agnosticism of many of their professors,” the bishop continued. “Like any other major world-class university, the professors there come from all over the world of academia. There are many who follow the reigning paradigm of materialist agnosticism. So you have well-meaning students who come from their parishes in Texas and throughout the world come there to get a university education and find themselves in battle with professors who would be demeaning of religion and sometimes fellow students who would be demeaning of their Catholic identity. So they needed support. We wanted to provide support for them in living fully and joyfully their Catholic faith.”
The bishop acknowledged St. Mary’s reputation for engendering vocations, and he said that when he was pastor, the staff was intentional about placing before students “the high ideals of our Christian life.”
“We would speak about our heroes, we would remember the martyrs and speak about meaningful sacrifice for Jesus Christ,” he said. “So in talking about this with the students we would talk about the celibate life and marriage and family and how those are all examples of sacrificial giving. So that was a key that marriage and the celibate life, ministry in the Church are about agape, self-giving love and meaningful sacrifice, as followers of Jesus Christ. We would communicate that regularly and help them to see that the kingdom of God was worth such a sacrifice.”
He said he keeps in touch with many of the students who were there in the 1990s and early 2000s, and now sees them “raising beautiful families.”
“They have beautiful marriages. They confront the challenges of life with faith. They’re involved in parish life. They’re leaders — as laity and ordained and as religious,” he said.
What’s important to director of campus ministry Mark Knox is that Aggie Catholics are graduating and bringing the Light of Christ with them.
“They are going into the workforce knowing their faith,” he said “And they are helping out, volunteering in youth ministry or as lectors or going to parishes that don’t have small groups at all and asking the pastors to lead a small group for young adults. They’re volunteering out in the world in a lot of ways that we can’t keep track of those numbers.”
“I hope that what people see is how alive the faith is here, to see young people doing what they’re doing,” said Sister Celestina Menin, a member of the Apostles of the Interior Life. “It’s mainly student-led … We have students organizing activities and wanting to grow in their relationship, in their faith. That’s what gives hope to people, to see that they are active in their faith. To form them in a way that when they leave St. Mary’s they can really be apostles in the world, in the Church, wherever they go.”