Aggie Catholic Renaissance

Where can you find a Catholic chaplaincy at an institution of higher learning that’s looking to expand its church to seat 1,400, because the current 850 just isn’t enough?

South Bend, Ind., perhaps? Well, no, actually: College Station, Texas, where the Catholic chaplaincy at Texas A&M, St. Mary’s Catholic Center, is setting a new national standard for Catholic campus ministry.

Aggie Catholicism is something to behold. Daily Mass attendance averages 175; there were closer to 300 Catholic Aggies at Mass on a weekday afternoon when I visited a few years back. Sunday Masses draw between 4,000 and 5,000 worshippers. There are 10 weekly time-slots for confessions, which are also heard all-day long on Monday. Eucharistic adoration, rosary groups, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the traditional First Friday devotion are staples of Aggie Catholicism’s devotional life.

A rich retreat program is available, and each year some 1,250 students make or staff a retreat sponsored by St. Mary’s. “Aggie Awakening,” an adaptation of Cursillo for students, is one of the cornerstones of the campus ministry; other, specially designed programs include a silent retreat and a retreat titled “Genius of Women.” In 2009-10, 200 students participated in bi-weekly spiritual direction programs, and another 70 took part in the “Samuel Group,” an exercise in Ignatian discernment that includes a commitment to curb what one campus minister describes as “unnecessary TV and Internet use.” Two-thousand A&M students, not all of them Catholics, have participated in introductory sessions exploring the theology of the body, and many have continued that exploration in follow-on study groups.

Then there is service. Aggie Catholics participate in domestic and international missions, work with Habitat for Humanity, take part in a ministry to prisoners, and are involved in various pro-life activities. In fact, the 40 Days for Life program is an outgrowth of the Catholic campus ministry at Texas A&M; the national office of 40 Days is staffed by Aggie grads. The campus ministry also works with a local Life Center that helps mothers and families in difficult situations.

All this energy has had a discernible effect on vocational formation and discernment. Since 2000, the campus ministry has averaged some nine students per year entering the seminary or religious novitiates; 132 Catholic Aggies have been ordained priests or made final religious vows in the past two decades. And then there is the vocation to marriage and family, which the campus ministry takes very seriously. Aggie Catholics are also a powerful witness to the rest of Aggieland; 175 new Catholics have entered the Church the past two years through St. Mary’s RCIA program.

The Catholic renaissance at Texas A&M is staffed by two full-time priests, three part-time and semi-retired deacons, one part-time priest, three full-time lay campus ministers, three sisters from the Apostles of the Interior Life, three part-time campus ministers, and four part-time student interns. That probably strikes many campus ministers as a rather large staff. In fact, the people who lead St. Mary’s are stretched—and they began where many others are today.

Catholic campus ministry at Texas A&M is a striking example of “If you build it, they will come.” The program is unapologetically orthodox. There is no fudging the demands of the faith. And yet they come, and come, and come, because Aggie Catholicism shows the campus a dynamic orthodoxy that is not a retreat into the past but a way of seizing the future and bending it in a more humane direction.  The premise that informed John Paul II’s approach to students his entire life—that young people want to be challenged to lead lives of heroic virtue, in which the search for love is the search for a pure and noble love—is the premise that guides Catholic campus ministry at College Station.

Texas A&M is a special place, culturally; in many respects, it seems to have skipped the ‘60s, such that its 21st-century life is in palpable continuity with its past. That’s a deeply Catholic cultural instinct, which St. Mary’s has seized to build a program that is a model for the entire country.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.