Catholic students in Australian secular universities confront a religious wasteland which can leach away any expression of their faith. Often their world view is challenged, even aggressively, by agnostics, atheists and well-meaning Christians from non-Catholic traditions. Some academics deride the Catholic Faith in their lectures.
Moreover, as many leaders in tertiary clubs and societies confirm, there is fierce competition for most students' time. Catholic events have to compete with lectures, assignments, part-time employment, sporting clubs, social life and all sorts of electronic distractions.
There is some good news, though. Over the last ten years – and especially since World Youth Day, Sydney 2008 – young Catholic leaders have revitalised young adult activities. These include the SIX 30 Holy Hours, Theology-on-Tap (and interstate equivalents) and well-attended retreat-conferences and festivals, such as one due in Melbourne, from 5-7 December this year.
However, the Catholic presence on tertiary campuses is not as impressive, with evidence pointing to two models of Catholic tertiary ministry which appear to work effectively.
One is a team ministry in the hands of young, dedicated Catholic adults, such as found at the Sydney universities (inspired, developed and funded by Cardinal George Pell). The chaplaincy in this example is led by thirty-year-old married man Daniel Hill, while the chaplain, Dominican friar Father Paul Rowse, provides daily Mass and makes the sacraments available.
Since the chaplaincy has a vigorous, youthful team it can offer a wide range of activities including free weekly barbecues, an annual retreat , "Christ Week", "Life Week", "Max" and "Edith Days" (St Maximilian Kolbe and St Edith Stein), the "Cardinal's Cup" soccer competition, a Rosary group and the annual Catholic Society of St Peter Ball and harbour cruise.
The Archdiocese of Sydney is not the only Australian diocese which has thoroughly reorganised its tertiary ministry over the last ten years.
There is also the renewed approach at the two campuses of the Queensland University of Technology, where the chaplain, Father Bavin Clarke, invited a National Evangelisation Team of well-trained young Catholics to work with him in the chaplaincy. Canadian-trained Robert Schroeder leads this team.
These chaplaincies in Sydney and Brisbane can reach mainstream Catholic students and mainstream Catholic men and women can relate to these youthful leaders. These chaplaincies also have a strong, visible, presence on their respective campuses.
However, across Australian Catholic tertiary chaplaincies, while there is a move towards the team approach in a few places, the dominant model remains that of the priest, religious or lay chaplain who directs activities – the "Lone Ranger" model.
Where this model is dominant, the chaplain (i.e., the priest, religious or lay person) is often much older. In these situations personality matters because some older people relate better to young tertiary students than others. Sometimes, the result of the striking age imbalance is less than encouraging.
A principal chaplaincy target audience, mainstream Australian young adults, is rarely reached. Indeed, many chaplaincies are limited to contacting small numbers of visiting foreign students, who are, indeed, another target group.
Many chaplaincies are missing the majority – even that small percentage of the men and women who are practising Catholics (or resonate with Catholic values) – from among the general student population.
A new team approach will cost more – lay staff on the "Freedom Team" at the Queensland Institute of Technology and at the Sydney Universities Chaplaincy have to be paid. Lay religious will require stipends.
In Australia, for historical reasons, Catholic primary and secondary schools have always had priority – and at astronomical cost. But in the changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century, tertiary education requires more effort at evangelisation and re-evangelisation.
After six years of primary education and another six years secondary, almost half the age cohort are looking at a further three to six years of tertiary education. Many of the future leaders in Church and state will come from among the tertiary educated.
The challenges have been stressed: the secular tone of the universities, the pressure of the agnostic majority and a student culture which often glorifies alcohol abuse and casual sexual experimentation. Catholic students require support, more than most chaplaincies are capable of providing.
However, Catholic students supported in their faith are often contributors to the Church, and her future, when they graduate. They have been forced to own their faith for the first time as adult Catholics. It is important to provide a place where they can grow in faith, learn and ask questions.
And they can grow, not just in their faith, but also as leaders.