Cardinal Pell's program for a Catholic culture at Sydney's universities

Cardinal Pell's program for a Catholic culture at Sydney's universities

Stephen Lawrence

Cardinal George Pell has launched a five-year program to extend the Sydney Archdiocese's existing presence at the University of Sydney to other university campuses. This will involve at least two chaplains at each large campus with the overall aim of building a Catholic culture among tertiary students.

The new chaplaincy strategy is aimed at enhancing and strengthening the presence of a Catholic leadership at each campus while reaching more students and retaining them. One of the extra positions at Sydney University is to be a general schools co-ordinator, to bridge the gap between secondary schools and the university.

While the initial focus has been primarily on the larger universities which allow for a student life on campus it is hoped in due course to extend the program into TAFE colleges and new universities like Notre Dame.

In 2004, following the International Youth Forum "Witnessing to Christ in the University" run by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which placed high emphasis on the need of human formation for young people while at university, the University of Sydney chaplaincy has been running formation days for both men and women on such topics as living in the world as a Christian and the call to holiness.

A six week course in the Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II, which I teach every year - the next beginning on 7 September - provides the key opportunity to deal with the two questions he poses: "Who are we?" and "How are we to live?" The last two years have drawn 35 and 40 young people, including some who are now married.

Each year we set up small groups to study the scriptures, with each of the nine weekly groups having five to eight students. With the aid of study guides they progress chapter by chapter seeking to understand the Word of God, to put it into practice in daily living, as well as to apply it to the task of their studies. There are around fifty students registered in these groups.

In addition, the John Paul II Student Resource Centre, with its collection of books, CDs and tapes, has been made available for students to create a Christian community of welcome and genuine charity.

To make daily Mass available on campus has been a priority for Cardinal Pell. Thanks to the generosity of Fr Dom Murphy OP, we have continued this tradition with an average of about 20 in attendance daily, and much larger numbers on feast days.

Since last year we have also provided daily adoration of the Eucharist for the hour prior to Mass during which time a steady trickle of students takes advantage of the possibility of the Sacrament of Penance. More and more students now spend time before Mass as well as after in recollection.

While we are working hard to help the students grow in their Catholic faith we recognise that a major priority is to help them unite their faith with their studies, to bridge faith with reason, to discover wisdom and truth in the midst of their research, in their labs, through their questions.

In this way they will become genuine Catholic scientists, lawyers, economists, in such a way as to see that every discipline is a means of discovering a particular way of looking at reality and thereby better serving humanity.

It was for this reason that the icon of Seat of Wisdom was entrusted to the universities of the world as the patron for students and academics in their search for knowledge and wisdom. This icon is being printed onto the t-shirts which will be available to the students attending the annual national conference of the Australian Catholic Students Association, the umbrella body for Catholic university students, which is meeting this year at Sydney University's St John's College from 15-17 July.

In regard to Catholic witness, every Wednesday afternoon we take up a position in a prominent place on campus and make of ourselves a visible presence in the name of the Church. We do this with a large picture of the pope, an icon, the presence of a priest in habit, a small table covered in promotional material for World Youth Day or events on campus, and a Bible and Catechism.

There we seek to evangelise, listen to and speak with students. A recent two-hour conversation with Muslims - a very respectful and frank dialogue - resulted in one of them writing 34 questions to Catholic Q and A, a cyber service we provide for those seeking answers about the Catholic Church.

New openness

Our Capuchin friar, Fr Rob Stewart, has been approached for Confession on the main street of the university and it is my experience that there is a new openness in the hearts and minds of young people to the Catholic faith, especially as they experience the failure of secularism and New Age.

Last Lent we prayed the Stations of the Cross through the main points of the university every Thursday, carrying with us a life-sized cross. By Holy Thursday we had gathered a group of 30 people. One girl was moved to become Catholic as a result of seeing this witness.

The Life Week debates have also been features with Bishop Anthony Fisher outpointing Dr Nitchke on the topic of Euthanasia in 2003 and Melinda Tankard Riest exposing some of the anomalies in the abortion issue in her 2004 debate with Eva Cox.

These examples by no means exhaust the long list of initiatives developed at the University of Sydney in recent years.

If these and other activities are replicated at other tertiary campuses around Sydney, there is a real prospect of building the Catholic culture on campus.

Stephen Lawrence is the Convener of Tertiary Chaplains for the Archdiocese of Sydney.

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