St. Ignatius, pizza and jokes: How I minister to college students

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

I am a campus minister at my alma mater, Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school. My time at S.L.U. helped me to develop a deeper, more mature relationship with Christ. I am trying to help college students do the same.

In 2000, I entered the Jesuit novitiate. I had many positive encounters with Jesuits at S.L.U. I took courses from older Jesuits on human nature and postmodern philosophy. I also worked with young Jesuits on retreats and service projects. At other times, we just chatted over lunch or coffee on campus. They were like big brothers to me: smart, fun and generous. I have stayed friends with many of these men; and now I am a Jesuit, too.

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My time at S.L.U. helped me to develop a deeper, more mature relationship with Christ.

On a cool Wednesday night in October, I am hosting Taste of Ignatius. Over five weeks, I guide students through several meditations from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. We look at the examen, gratitude and the “First Principle and Foundation.” Around 10 to 15 students show up on an average week. Some come once. Some never miss. There are freshmen and seniors, Catholic, Christian, other and “not sure.” A Hindu student brings a buddy.

I try to keep it positive, keep it moving and make sure it does not feel like school. I bring pizzas. We eat and introduce ourselves. I offer a little nugget from St. Ignatius, mix in a few Dad jokes, a quote from Scripture and a personal example. It is bite-sized spirituality. Pope Francis writes about ministry to youth in his apostolic exhortation, “Christus Vivit.” He says:

While adults often worry about having everything properly planned, with regular meetings and fixed times, most young people today have little interest in this kind of pastoral approach. Youth ministry needs to become more flexible: inviting young people to events or occasions that provide an opportunity not only for learning, but also for conversing, celebrating, singing, listening to real stories and experiencing a shared encounter with the living God (No. 204).

That is what I am shooting for here: the new evangelization. We are talking about God, life, joys, sorrows, prayer and Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes and stays the whole time. I am certainly enjoying it. There is no commitment. All are welcome. Ignatius is our guide. I do want them to deepen their relationship with Christ; he does, too.

While they are gathered, they share each other’s graces.

I am always struck by their quiet, diligent prayer. Some pray daily, make a holy hour each week and catch a few weekday Masses. For others, this might be the only quiet 15 minutes in their week—when they are not in a lab, scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, at the gym or working at a desk job in the admissions office. These kids are smart, generous and friendly. They are also tired and stressed. Many are burdened by the invisible, relentless competition of grades and internet “likes.” If you give them the opportunity and a little encouragement, they can downshift to a different gear. I think about the Jesuits who reached out to me when I was in college. As St. Ignatius says, “Go in their door.” That is what they did for me. I am trying to do something similar with these weekly gatherings.

This is not Mass, but it is in continuity with Mass. While they are gathered, they share each other’s graces, filling their own cups to the brim from their friends’ overflow. This is true for me, too. The blessings are doubled and the sorrows halved.

The hour ends, and we close with a prayer. A few stick around to chat. Others dash off to study groups, club meetings or Netflix. Some ask to meet with me individually later in the week. They are out in the cool, dark evening, ready to share a sip of this mini-retreat with friends on campus.

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