Young Leaders Keep Campus Ministry Alive During and After Pandemic

Animated by St. Francis de Sales’ maxim to “be who you are and be that well,” DeSales University Senior Shea Elliott has led an on-campus Bible study for three years. The study has been a blessing to her fellow students while “deeply fostering” Elliott’s own spiritual growth.

“Teaching has always been a dream of mine,” said Elliott, who is a member of the Kappa Delta Pi honor society for education. Yet Elliott almost passed up leading the Bible study. “I did not feel like I was qualified,” she said. But her friend Izzy urged her until she agreed.

Elliott, a theology major, believes that campus ministry is a powerful tool for strengthening students’ Catholic identity.

“Quite a few of my friends came to college with an inkling of faith or none at all,” she noted. “Campus ministry has helped them to dive deeper.”

Elliott credits the Diocese of Allentown with having “tremendously assisted” her campus ministry efforts by allowing her to intern in both the Office of Young Adult and Campus Evangelization and in the campus ministry offices of two diocesan high schools.

Three young leaders of campus ministry in the Diocese recently were awarded the inaugural Jeffrey P. Young Youth Service Award, for outstanding contributions to their college campuses while exemplifying a Christian lifestyle.

“I am so proud of these three young people who have shown such great enthusiasm for their faith, who have given excellent witness to that faith among their peers, and who have exhibited solid leadership on their campuses,” said Bishop Alfred Schlert.

In addition to Elliott, the award also went to Brianna Maslonka of Lehigh University and Gillian MacDonald of Lafayette College.

Maslonka, now a teaching assistant in Lehigh’s Department of Biology, said campus ministry “was how I stayed connected to God during my transition to college.”

Having grown up just down the street from her church, where service opportunities were plentiful, Maslonka felt at home in Lehigh’s campus ministry, a “service organization” assisting the Lehigh University, Holy Ghost Parish, and Bethlehem communities.

One day, while helping with outreach at the local Victory House homeless shelter, the impact of the ministry became real.

“We shopped for the food to make dinner for the veterans,” she recalled, “and we were on a limited budget.” The experience opened her eyes to the “daily struggles that low-income individuals face.”

While it is “incredibly gratifying’ to see the difference that campus ministry has made outside of the Lehigh community, Maslonka is just as impressed by the ministry's on-campus impact.

“My first year [at Lehigh], we had only a few individuals weekly and did very few outside events,” she said. But the increasing presence of campus ministry brought a surge of scheduled events and an ongoing boom in attendance.

Maslonka will graduate next month with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and is planning to work in clinical trials. Her experience in campus ministry will, she believes, help her to maintain “ethics and integrity.”

Like Maslonka, MacDonald strives to apply her faith daily. MacDonald is a senior at Lafayette College, serving her second term as president of the Newman Catholic Association.

MacDonald helps to plan activities that show “how our faith can be applied in society today,” as well as “deepen our understanding of not only the Catholic faith, but also other religions.”

For MacDonald, campus ministry has been rewarding, but not without challenges.

When the pandemic put a stop to on-campus Masses, “a small group of 7 to 10 students would walk about 20 minutes downtown to Mass,” said MacDonald. Pre-Covid they averaged about 60 students at weekly Mass.

But MacDonald tried “to see the gifts that the Holy Spirit has instilled in me to carry out the mission of the Church.” She resolved to continue.

“This past Ash Wednesday,” she said, “there were almost 100 students, staff, faculty, and community members [at the campus Mass].”

Ministering during Covid has made MacDonald “uniquely sensitive to the ways in which college students use religion as a way to overcome stressful experiences.” In fact, her senior thesis explores the impact of religion on post-traumatic stress disorder.

MacDonald believes that groups like the Newman Association are much needed at non-Catholic colleges where “you do not have parents or teachers reminding you to go to Mass or pray or volunteer.”

“Campus ministry is necessary for giving students the chance to take personal responsibility for their faith,” she said.

In the photo above, from left are Campus Ministry Leaders Gillian MacDonald, Brianna Maslonka, and Shea Elliot – recipients of the inaugural Jeffrey P. Young Youth Service Award – with Sandra Young and Bishop Alfred Schlert.


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