John Bosco inspires new campus ministry

As parents sent their students off to college this fall, many would have been concerned that their children may wander away from the Catholic faith. Their concern is justified: The statistics are not encouraging. According to a 2015 Pew survey of American Catholics, 41 percent of adults who were raised Catholic have left the faith.

Father Christopher Vaccaro, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., founded an organization to stem the tide. The priest, who serves as the Catholic campus minister at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, founded the Associates of St. John Bosco to support and encourage Catholic college students in their faith.

ASJB primarily serves Catholics who attend secular universities, where the campus life and education can be toxic to the Faith. Even with the presence of a good Catholic campus ministry, nothing beats the formation provided by a faithful Catholic education. Still, campus ministry is important for students who don’t attend Catholic colleges, and Catholic educators can benefit by observing and replicating successful strategies in campus ministry.

Father Vaccaro’s original intent in 2011 was to provide scholarship funds for students who wished to serve the Church. Using his own Mass stipends as seed money to start the project, he soon realized that there was a larger need. In speaking with young adults who had already graduated, he found them to be like “sheep without a shepherd,” and desired through the work of the Associates of St. John Bosco to help change this.

When asked why he chose John Bosco as the group’s patron, Fr. Vaccaro said he was inspired by the saint’s philosophy of working with young people. Bosco believed in three tenets of education: reason (fairness, reasonable rules, a common-sense approach to life); religion (a vibrant, active faith is essential, making it a practical part of everyday life); and kindness (forming healthy relationships with students and understanding their personal situations).

Father Vaccaro said students respond well to this approach, and his aim is to help them integrate their faith into every aspect of college life. Many incoming freshmen arrive at school without knowing about Catholic campus ministry or even where to attend Mass. The vast majority of them fall away from the Faith early in the semester, even during the first week of class. To reverse this trend, the priest decided to be proactive and reach out to students before they leave home and their familiar surroundings.

To that end, ASJB has sponsored a series of “college nights” each summer since 2013 to connect students with other Catholics from their prospective schools and to help ease the transition from high school to college. These parish-based meetings take place throughout the Arlington diocese and are conducted by a group of about 20 student volunteers from various colleges and universities. Father Vaccaro has had such a good response from students who want to help that he cannot use them all yet, but said he hopes the project will grow to accommodate all who wish to participate.

A typical College Night begins with panel discussions on topics like faith in the classroom, homesickness, adjusting to college life, followed by group discussion. An icebreaker kicks off small group discussion, and then it’s time for pizza and fellowship. Then Fr. Vaccaro or a guest priest gives a talk. Afterwards, volunteers distribute “Bosco Bundles”—a Bible, catechism, a prayer journal, books, holy water, and other sacramentals. The evening wraps up with a group photo.

The sessions are completely free and, according to Fr. Vaccaro, have been very well received. Feedback has been 100 percent positive. The program has grown from 14 participants the first year to 54 this year. Four student associates have committed volunteering with the program for an hour a week.

“We need to be on the offensive with the power of grace,” Fr. Vaccaro said.

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