A new shift in faith searching among students is challenging the strong, Catholic identity St. Thomas has worked hard to maintain.
Students join in praise and worship at Shine in Koch fireside. Shine is one of two nondenominational groups on campus available for all students to attend, regardless of their religious beliefs. (Sara Kovach/TommieMedia)
Many students are attending on-campus worship services like Shine or Ignite instead of celebrating traditional Mass. The shift follows data taken from the national 2010 census report summarizing that mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the U.S. lost an average of 17.8 percent of its active members since 2000.
“I started coming to Ignite because I found genuine community. Also, music is how I best express prayer and it is a way for me to personally be fed spiritually,” senior Julia Reinisch said.
The Rev. Eric Rutten said providing a welcoming atmosphere for young people is a growing problem for many local parishes.
“I think the vast majority of people are looking for belonging, a place to call home. So, if people are feeling not welcomed, like nobody said ‘hello’ to them or if they’re feeling that people are very different from them, they can’t connect or relate as easy,” Rutten said. “They then go to a nondenominational church and see people are singing and have more young people around, so they can relate better than at a traditional church.”
The two largest nondenominational religious groups on campus are Ignite and Shine. Ignite meets every Sunday at 9 p.m. and Shine meets every Tuesday at 9 p.m., both in Koch Fireside. Both groups teach Christian ideals, but are open for all students to attend, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“I like that Ignite is a safe place for anyone and everyone to come express themselves before the Lord. It is a genuine community where people can come exactly as they are,” Reinisch said. “I love the acoustic style of the music, and that we start the evening with prayer as a whole group.”
Despite the shift, the census reported Roman Catholic as the largest religious denomination in Minnesota.
Freshman Erin Kimball said attending Shine and Ignite does not replace the importance of going to church for her.
“Clearly, college is a time to explore, but I would not consider myself to be exploring other faiths in the hope of converting, rather exploring other faiths to confirm my love for the Catholic faith,” Kimball said.
Rutten said St. Thomas will not downplay its Catholic identity just to be a more marketable university.
“We as Catholics should do as much as we can to make sure that everybody feels comfortable here and welcomed here. That everyone’s point of view can really add to the mix, can add to the search for truth, which is hopefully what we’re about at a university,” Rutten said.
Campus Ministry, which is rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition, uses many methods to reach out to students. For those who appreciate tradition, there are daily and weekly traditional masses and liturgies available on campus. Also, for those who appreciate more community-based services, peer ministers often help plan engaging events like United We Praise.
“Besides holding religious services for other faiths, I think the University of St. Thomas does a good job of supporting most faiths,” Kimball said. “Students do have to remember that this is specifically a Catholic university though, and so obviously, religious activities will slant toward the Catholic faith.”
Reinish said she hopes St. Thomas will continue to work on adding more prayer opportunities for unity between nondenominational boundaries.
“They (peer ministers) have been great at advocating for unity among believers and personally attending many of the events here on campus. I think it would be great if other ministry leaders followed that example,” Reinish said. “Even having some sort of prayer connection where the ministries can actively be praying for one another would be a step forward in increasing unity among believers here on campus.”
Sara Kovach can be reached at email@example.com.