For All the Saints
Secular College Campuses Seeing Catholic Processions
by Kimberly Jansen | Source:
LINCOLN, Nebraska — The November night air was crisp as the fraternities at the University of Nebraska prepared to outdo each other with their homecoming lawn displays.
Stereos blasted. Hammers pounded. Electric saws screeched.
Then the faint sound of singing began to filter down “Greek row” as a candle-carrying army approached.
One by one, radios were turned down, power tools switched off and fraternity brothers stood in silence as 200 college students walked past. They were led by priests, seminarians, religious sisters and Knights of Columbus. A four-posted canopy covered the Blessed Sacrament.
The hour-long Eucharistic procession in Lincoln, Neb., began at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center several blocks away and included stops at three altars set up on campus — the Student Union, Memorial Stadium and a field at the edge of Greek row.
That was All Saints’ Day 2006, and the students plan to repeat the event this year.
If it sounds like an unusual event — a Eucharistic procession on the campus of a public university — you’re right. It’s rare. But not unique.
Just over a month after that procession, nearly 100 students at North Dakota State University marched in a similar fashion led by Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila — continuing a five-year tradition in celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe as patroness of the unborn.
Starting at St. Paul’s Newman Center, their procession proceeded along a candle-lined path and included prayers for faculty and students at the administration building, the library and a women’s dorm before returning to St. Paul’s for a pro-life speaker and Mexican fiesta.
The inspiration for such public displays of faith on campus came from different sources. North Dakota State University graduate Lisa Gray read John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharista (The Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church) where he emphasizes the importance of processions in parish life. She said that “knowing that the direction of education is at the forefront of shaping the philosophy and ideology today” made the collegiate procession a great fit.
In Nebraska, Newman Center staff members were impressed by “God in the Streets” — a video of a procession through New York City streets by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Sanctify the Campus
For Father Jay Buhman, assistant pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas in Lincoln and coordinator of the event, the purpose was twofold: to foster devotion among the faithful and to sanctify the campus.
The first goal was accomplished more immediately than Father Buhman expected.
“It was amazing when we got back to see the fire in the students’ eyes,” he said. “You could see that it invigorated their faith in the Eucharist and their Catholic faith in its entirety.”
University of Nebraska sophomore Christopher Burton, one of four men chosen to carry the canopy, said that before the procession he wasn’t embarrassed by his faith, but he wasn’t comfortable sharing it.
“Now when people ask me what I’m doing that night, I say, ‘I’m going to Community Night and Mass. Would you like to join me?’” he said.
For Father Buhman, another aspect of the procession involved taking Jesus to the sidewalks of the campus. Even if passersby failed to understand what was happening, they still met Jesus in that moment, he said.
According to procession participants, most onlookers’ reactions mirrored that of the fraternity brothers — wonder, curiosity, bewilderment.
“It was an honest bewilderment that they had never seen anything like it before,” Father Buhman said.
Ed Rubin, a 2007 Nebraska graduate, had a conversation with a student while taking pictures of the procession. As the young man asked questions, Rubin gradually explained that the object at the center was actually the Body of Christ.
“I was just thinking of how crazy my words must sound, but I just kept going,” Rubin said. “He never said, ‘Oh, that’s dumb.’ He just kept listening.”
Rubin said the student watched attentively as the group disappeared around the corner, so he invited the young man to join them. He declined, but repeated several times, “It’s just really beautiful.”
For Jessica Lisman, a 2007 graduate, observing the procession as she walked to class drew her one step farther.
“They made Catholicism seem really contagious — something you want to be a part of,” she said, adding that she wasn’t raised in a particular church. “It definitely elevated my interest in the Catholic Church and made me want to learn more about it.”
After attending RCIA classes at St. Thomas Aquinas last year and seeking guidance from a Catholic friend there, Lisman has decided to become Catholic.
Out on a Limb
According to Curtis Martin, founder and president of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, whose staff members serve at both the University of Nebraska and North Dakota State University, events like a Eucharistic procession are valuable experiences because of the potential for such “friendly and inviting conversation” where evangelization is likely to happen.
“The role of evangelization is never to impose the faith on anyone but to propose the faith to anyone who’s interested,” he said. “These events draw inquiries out of people who are either away from the Catholic Church or have never been Catholic. That’s a unique opportunity on a secular campus.”
Students and staff members alike admit they were a bit nervous at first to engage in such a forthright expression of faith on campus, but even the challenges turned into moments of grace.
In North Dakota, for example, the below-freezing temperatures provided an additional sacrifice for participants to attach to their prayers.
“That’s how North Dakotans bond,” said Tiffany Splonskowski, interim director of St. Paul’s, with a chuckle. “We defy the weather.”
In Nebraska, organizers expressed concern about a low turnout, but they printed 100 songbooks anyway.
Father Buhman was quick to turn the focus back to Christ.
“If it doesn’t go well — if nobody’s there — what matters is that we do this as an act of worship for Our Lord,” he reminded the students.
On the night of the procession, the songbooks ran out within minutes.
As University of Nebraska students prepare to take Our Lord out on campus again this year for the feast of All Saints, Ed Rubin recalls the experience as a lesson in trust.
“If you go out on a limb for [God], He’s not going to leave you out to dry,” Rubin said. “Great things will happen, but it requires people willing to go out of their comfort zone.”
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.