Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 22, 1999
Faith at the university
Campus ministry: National coordinator testifies to students' thirst for Catholic faith
By BYRON PRICE
Special to the WCR
Rick Benson has been national coordinator for Canadian Catholic Campus Ministry since August 1998. Married and the father of three young children, Benson was dean of students at St. Francis Xavier University from 1991 to 1998.
He worked as a youth minister and teacher of religious studies in the Calgary Catholic school district. The position of national coordinator is funded with a grant from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
WCR: Why do the Canadian bishops see campus ministry as an important issue?
Benson: The Canadian Catholic bishops understand the needs and are committed to campus ministry. They know young people have a great thirst for spirituality and their Catholic faith. The bishops believe a Catholic presence is needed to ensure there are ways to practise their Catholic faith in a university setting. The bishops see great diversity among the student population. The bishops view campus ministry, as a place where future priests, religious and laity may be formed in a positive manner.
The Catholic bishops have appointed Bishop Ray Roussin of Victoria as episcopal liaison to campus ministry. I think this is important because Bishop Roussin was chaplain of St. Paul's College in Winnipeg from 1990-95. He has a first hand knowledge of the importance of Catholic students' faith development.
Now, as more and more laity are becoming involved, we need to make sure that the person who does campus ministry has a balanced background - by that I mean you can have someone very versed in youth ministry and very weak in theology so we would want more of a balance so that the students in the university setting would get the best possible experience of their Catholic faith.
WCR: Why is it important to have a Catholic campus ministry inCanadian universities?
Benson: It is very important to be in Canadian universities to show the relevance of our Catholic faith. We know students are seeking spirituality and we also know from the research that they are turning away to other groups if their spirituality is not met.
WCR: What do you think campus minis-try across Canada should do to engage these young people?
Benson: Jesus met people where they were in their lives and invited them to grow. Campus ministry has to go where the young people are and that means in many cases out of the office to the young men and women's turf.
We know a lot of young people are interested in spirituality, stories of the saints, sacraments, prayer and retreats - our Catholic tradition. Our faith has something profound to say about the common good and the sacredness of all life.
We have to present these aspects of our faith to these young people so they may experience a faith that is important for them and society as they carry that commitment to their faith into the next century.
WCR: Who are the people engaged in campus ministry?
Benson: There are a great number of people involved in campus ministry across Canada - clergy, religious, laity. All of the people I have met have tremendous gifts, commitment to their faith and the ability to pass that enthusiasm on to students.
These people on the front lines deal with the big questions: Why am I here? Why is there death and suffering? I'm pregnant, what will I do? I need a place to live, etc.
Different philosophies are challenging the rationale of our Catholic faith. Our people have to work with the reality that budgets do affect what we can do. The job may require full time but our presence can only be supported half time. They also know that if they don't fill the need these people will go other places to have their spiritual needs met.
WCR: Why have a campus ministry? These young people have their own parishes.
Benson: The university setting is a unique environment where different ideologies, philosophies, lifestyles come at these young people much more intensified. Many are away from home for the first time.
A Catholic presence in the midst of all the competing values has a calming effect that may positively ground the person so they can truly make informed decisions about their faith and life direction.
This is a very important stage in their lives. There is a lot at stake. God's value for life, people, and the Catholic Church's great knowledge and wisdom must be there with these young people.
WCR: If young people have a problem in university, why not just send them for counselling?
Benson: If a young women becomes pregnant, she can obtain counselling wherever she wishes. However, we believe as a Catholic community on campuses, we would be remiss if we did not try to reach out with a helping hand. Our Church has centuries of knowledge and wisdom with important concepts of dignity and respect.
Jesus' great love for humanity reaches out to tell these young people they are special and all life is special because it is sacred and a gift from God. This is a tremendous insight that can help a great many young people through hard times and to be the best they can be as children of God.
WCR: Is there hope for the future of Catholic ministry in universities in Canada?
Benson: I think we're in a very special time as we move into the next century. I think the universities are more open to the role of religion on their campuses.
We believe young people have a great thirst for the Word of God to be experienced in new and creative ways. We also must continue the gift of our sacraments and retreats which continue to be a source of faith and renewal for the Catholic university population.
Parents are glad and encourage their sons and daughters to be involved in campus ministry. It gives parents a sense of comfort and security.
As we move in a time when the intellect will be a very sought-after commodity and the concentration of the university seems to be more heavily weighted towards business and technology, should not Jesus and our Church play an important role in the development of these keen young Catholic people?
WCR: What do you see are the challenges for yourself and campusministry?
Benson: I hope and pray I can do a good job ministering to the campus ministries. I wish to support them any way I can. One specific challenge is to raise more funds. We have started this process by being accepted as a registered charity which will enable us to fundraise.
We need more campus ministers full time so that we can increase our profile and meet more of the needs of our Catholic young people in the over 60 post-secondary institutions across Canada.
We also need to get to the rank and file in our Catholic churches to show them what is being done and to inform them of the support and resources we need to carry on the mission of campus ministries.