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Sanctifying Courses on a Secular Campus

The St. Lawrence Center at the (secular) University of Kansas welcomes 1,500 students at weekend Masses, and for seven years interested students — more than 40
by DANA LORELLE | Source:
Matt Kemnitz was an aspiring professor of German when he came to the University of Kansas as a graduate student in 1999.

The lifelong Catholic soon involved himself in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, where one man’s questions about his faith — and Kemnitz’s own answers — would change the course of his life and of his career.

The University of Kansas is a secular university of 27,000 students, about 25% of them Catholic. The St. Lawrence Center welcomes 1,500 students at weekend Masses, and for seven years interested students — more than 400 per year — have signed up for its non-credit courses offering intellectual and spiritual formation.

Based on the success of this model, this fall the program will branch out from the university confines to catechize and form adults through parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City. The program will be known as the Holy Family School of Faith.

From the archdiocesan base, the program will, its administrators hope, spread to other secular campuses throughout the country.

The program’s name derives from a February 2004 address by Pope John Paul II.

“I am delighted with the suggestion to promote schools of faith (emphasis in original) in the heart of university institutions,” the Holy Father said, “for they are particularly well-suited to providing high-quality teaching, faithful to the magisterium, in a perspective that is not only intellectual but also concerned to develop the spiritual and liturgical life of the Christian people and help them discover the moral requirements associated with living in accordance with the Gospel.”

Filling a Vacuum

The School of Faith will work through the St. Lawrence Center, sharing instructors, but it’s set up as a public association of the faithful, working within existing ecclesiastical structures. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann is to serve as episcopal moderator.

The courses focus on Scripture and salvation history, the Catechism, virtue-based morality, the theology of the body, sex and marriage, and prayer and spirituality over six semesters. During the fourth year, students take elective courses.

All courses are taught by instructors with advanced degrees in theology and meet once each week for 12 weeks. Instructors must also receive a mandatum from the archbishop. This year, six instructors will teach 15 classes for students and at least 12 more classes in local parishes.

The parishes will host the same set of courses for adults with one key difference: While university students attend courses free of charge, adults enrolled in the courses will pay $250 per semester. There is no cost to the parishes.

“It’s a way for a parish to outsource a quality education,” explains Jayd Hendricks, associate director of the School of Faith. “Parishes are already strapped with financial needs. We provide the education at no cost and there’s no requirement for the parish other than providing a classroom for us to teach in.”

These funds benefit the St. Lawrence Center in its apostolate to catechize University of Kansas students. The backing will allow for expanding the program to other secular university campuses with the University of Kansas model as a training ground.

Mike Scherschligt, executive director of the School of Faith, said that the goal is to train instructors through the School of Faith and send them to other campuses to replicate the model. The tuition charged for adult classes will be used to support these teachers, two of whom will work on campus this fall.

His philosophy that catechesis is needed at secular schools is based in statistics: 90% of Catholic students attend non-Catholic universities.

“There’s a tremendous hunger to learn the basics of the faith because we’ve been brought up in a vacuum,” says Scherschligt. “People want to know, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’ ‘How do I fit into this big plan?’”

Changing Lives

To underscore the importance of forming young Catholics, Scherschligt points out that 85% to 90% of all parochial-school teachers in the Kansas City area come from public universities where moral formation usually takes a backseat to academic and career pursuits.

At the beginning of each year, students at the University of Kansas fill out pew cards at Mass indicating their interest in the courses. Students are then contacted personally by Scherschligt or another instructor to discuss their faith and formation opportunities.

Scherschligt asks every student the same question: How do you think you need to grow in your faith? “Always, the answer is, ‘I don’t know my faith. I don’t know anything about my faith,’” he says.

He posed this same question to Matt Kemnitz in 1999, and Kemnitz gave the expected answer.

So did former University of Kansas student Emily Davis. “It completely turned my life around,” she says of the program. “It astounded me that I had been a Catholic my whole life and I’d never heard this stuff.”

Not only did Davis become certified as a catechist for the archdiocese through completion of the full course of studies, but she also grew deeply interested in the theology of the body — so much so that she spent last year studying at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome.

As for Kemnitz, the courses steered him away from German and into theology. Within a year, he had accepted a job as outreach minister for the St. Lawrence Center.

After a year at seminary discerning that his vocation lay in marriage, his dual love for theology and teaching led him back to the center as a teacher. He now works as director of the youth and young-adult ministry at the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, Kan., and he credits the courses he took through the St. Lawrence Center with the transformation in his life.

“It taught me more than my faith,” he says. “It taught me my vocation. It taught me what a vocation is.”

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