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Nov. 17, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 6

Q&A: Listening to the Church's 'Next Generation'

College students from around Eastern Massachusetts gathered at Boston College on Nov. 5 to give their viewpoints on the changes and challenges confronting the Catholic Church, at a conference sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center. Christina Corea '06, a principal organizer for "Our Church, Our Faith, Our Future," last week talked about the event and its potential after-effects.

What kind of a turnout did you have at the conference? Were you surprised at the interest it generated?

We had over 100 students attend the conference, from 15 regional colleges and universities. This showing was extremely encouraging to me, as our conference was the inaugural event with the goal of bringing students together on contemporary Catholic issues sponsored by Church in the 21st Century. More than numbers, though, it was so heartening because all the attendees were so open to dialogue and discussion, and so many of the students expressed gratitude for the ability to converse with other college-aged students on issues of importance to our church.

What was the impetus for having a conference like this?

I had the idea for the conference while sitting in a Church in the 21st Century Advisory Committee meeting. We were talking about handing on the faith, and all of a sudden I realized that as a student on the committee, it is my responsibility to be more proactive in talking about the serious issues affecting the church with others in my age group. After all, my generation is the future leadership of this church, and I feel that many of us, myself included, need a stronger grounding in our faith's traditions and in its beauty and mystery in order to assume leadership of an institution that certainly is in need of a newly energized youth population. I did not know how students from area schools, or even from BC, were dealing with the aftermath of the church crisis. Furthermore, and more importantly, I wanted to know what other campuses offered to students in terms of resources in learning about their faith. I wondered if other students also felt anxious about assuming positions of leadership in our church, either as lay persons or religious. All of these reasons, in combination with a desire to network and meet other faithful students in the area, were the reasons for starting the conference planning.

How were you able to organize it?

First I consulted with a number of people on the advisory committee to get a sense of what size I should aim towards for a first event and what the scope should be. Should it include all Jesuit schools nationwide? Just Catholic schools in Massachusetts? Only schools in the Boston archdiocese? This topic was up in the air until we actually made invites to schools, because we did not have a budget until further on in the process.

The real challenge in organizing the conference was determining what the content should be. Dawn Overstreet, the assistant director of Church in the 21st Century, was really instrumental in meeting with me to help narrow the scope of the conference and come up with a feasible approach for a daylong event. She also suggested that we work with Mike Sacco, director of student formation, in the planning process, and Mike was able to generate a great deal of support among BC students. From there the three of us planned the content of the day, and also tried as much as possible to make this conference a collaborative event among area schools.

To that end, in the spring of 2005, I called about 30 schools to get student representatives to work on the planning aspect of the conference, and we were able to invite those students to campus in April to share ideas. Once we had laid the groundwork on various campuses, we went ahead putting together speakers. This year, with Tim Muldoon assuming leadership of the Church in the 21st Century Center, Dawn, Mike, and I got a great deal of support from him. Tim personally extended invites to campus ministers at around 25 schools, and he worked to solidify breakout session leaders. Associate Dean for Student Development Chris Darcy was extremely helpful with logistics for the conference, and Campus Minister Sister Mary Sweeney directed our morning prayer of the hour activities, and wrote a prayer for students to take with them at the end of the day.

I can't stress enough, though, how helpful the Student Steering Committee of BC student leaders was in making the event successful. At the beginning of this academic year, I formed a steering committee of about 15 BC students who worked extremely hard to make this event a reality. I really could not have done it without the Student Steering Committee or without Dawn, Tim, Mike, Chris, and Sr. Mary's continued help, along with immense amounts of institutional support and encouragement from the Church in the 21st Century Advisory Committee. Were there a couple of moments ˇ whether formal or informal ˇ at the event you found particularly striking and memorable?

By the end of the day, when we were at Mass together in St. Joseph's chapel, I looked around the room and remember feeling like I had 100 new friends. I really felt connected to the students there because we interacted on a level that was meaningful. I learned about one student's deep respect for, and knowledge of, the Augustinian intellectual tradition. Another student felt that her faith was embodied in her service work and in her love of other people.

I was able to have meaningful conversations with what were earlier in the day complete "strangers," and that was extremely powerful. It showed me the deeper meaning of the word "churchţ and the call to love your neighbor first by listening and being truly present to him or her. Here we were, 100 students from all over the state, sharing the Eucharist together, and it was very symbolic of the community that was generated that day, and in larger terms of the community of the international church of which we are the building blocks. As much as we discussed pressing issues such as sexuality, spirituality, diversity, social justice, and vocational discernment in our smaller break-out sessions, I think the most powerful moments for me were the realizations that there are students out there, beyond this campus, that are extremely in touch with their faith lives. There are students who worry about the future of our church, of dwindling membership; who question how they can have a stronger faith in a more troubled world and a more-informed faith in an increasingly globalized world.

What do you think were the most important points to come out of the event? And where do you think, or hope, the dialogue can continue?

I think that the conference will have long-term residual effects in bringing students together on these issues. Not only did many attendees express interest in making this an annual event, rotating on various college campuses, but many students also networked with each other, trying to promote an inter-collegiate presence for their own campus events relating to the Catholic faith.

We emailed all the students one another's contact information, to try and keep the dialogue going, and we also provided pertinent articles and prayer cards to the attendees as well as pointing them toward web resources for young adults on the Church in the 21st Century website. I think this dialogue will continue because it needs to. A one-day conference can spur the impetus for change in a person's mind, but only with continued personal learning, dialogue on critical topics, and collaboration of young people can we really create a larger movement for change in the next generation of our church.

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