Tag Archives: Campus Ministry

The Gifts We Thought We Didn’t Need

Last night, we celebrated my final farewell at the Sheil Catholic Center.  There have been many opportunities to say good-bye to people one-on-one, but it was important to see students in this “official” capacity one last time. Thanks to everyone who joined us, for your kind words, and making the night special!  These were my remarks.

Gift Box

I have a favorite quote from Will Willimon, a professor and former dean of the Divinity School at Duke University. Willimon says:

This is often the way God loves us:  with gifts we thought we didn’t need
which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.

I’m really grateful to be back at Sheil tonight for this official farewell. As many of you know, I left Sheil very unexpectedly at the end of June. Since then I’ve been spending a lot of time traveling, seeing family, and catching up with friends and professional colleagues. Two quick stories:

I have a friend who just turned 40. She and her husband recently learned that she is pregnant-again. Needless to say, having another baby was not part of their “plan”.  She said to me, “We weren’t ready for this!  But by the grace of God and a lot of prayer, we realize what a GIFT this new life is for our family.”  This is often how God loves us, with gifts we thought we didn’t need ….

I have another friend, a professional acquaintance, who runs a ministry for homeless people who struggle with addictions. I asked him, “How exactly did you get to be director of such a great organization?” He laughed to himself and said, “I spent the first three years out of college binge drinking and couch surfing. I finally grew up, got sober, and someone gave me a second chance. I’m not proud of the mistakes I made, but by the grace of God I’m still sober. And 25 years later I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who are homeless and struggling to overcome their addictions.”  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need that transform us into people we never expected to be…

As I look back at 10 years of ministry at Sheil, I am incredibly grateful for all of it. There were plenty of moments along the way, where I thought to myself, “I’m not ready for this! And this wasn’t part of the plan! And I’m not always proud of the mistakes I made.” But this is often the way God loves us… 

As a campus minister I was invited into some really holy and privileged conversations with students. Students changing majors or discerning vocations, thinking about getting engaged or deciding to break up, the student who got accepted into graduate school and the one who didn’t, when a grandparent died or a mom was diagnosed with cancer, or sitting with a student in the hospital and the RA who had to call 911 over the weekend. All of this in the midst of classes, athletics, music recitals, and theatre productions. And retreats, small groups, service trips, and everything else that happens at Sheil.

It is really incredible to be with people in moments of joy and celebration and in times of heartache and confusion.  Every conversation, every service trip, every retreat, every event on campus, every moment of silence in the chapel is a gift that- welcome or not- God is using to transform us.  And I am certain that God is using all of this to transform me and prepare me for what is next!

In leaving Sheil, there is one thing that I have been reminded of over and over again – and that is how incredibly faithful God is. God has gifted this community with his presence, and God has given you (given us) the gift of one another.  I am confident that good things will continue to happen in my life, and in yours, and in the life of Sheil Catholic Center.

Thank you for letting me be a part of it for the past 10 years.  What a gift!

(Photo from Flickr Creative Commons)

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Some Definite Service

John_Henry_NewmanI am still clearing out emails.  I have to admit, back in June, the task of responding to email was too overwhelming for me.  After ten years on campus, there were countless relationships with colleagues, alumni, students, and community members – many of whom I intend to stay connected with in one form or another.  My heart is filled with gratitude for all that we were able to do together, but hitting “reply” one last time from my .edu address was a painful reminder of the finality of my work there.  Be assured that I still have the best intentions of replying to everyone who wrote with a thank you or words of encouragement or job leads or offers to review my resume! 

This week, as I was shuffling through a few more notes, I came across an email from a student.  She is a graduate student at another major mid-west university.  Her parents live in the Evanston area, so although she was not a Northwestern student, she would occasionally make her way to the Sheil Center during breaks from school.

We would spend a few minutes talking before/after mass, and one time she even sat in on a class I was teaching.  I often found myself offering a genuine “welcome home” whenever she wandered in during those times when her school was on break but Northwestern was still in session.  

When she saw the message about my position being eliminated, she sent an email to let me know that the Newman Center at her university had an opening.  She ended her email with this P.S. …

Much prayers and blessings and hopes for the road ahead.  I look forward to seeing where life takes you!   By the way, I thought you might like to know that (to my utter surprise) I’ll probably be taking theology/scripture courses for the first time this school year in (hopeful) preparation for a graduate certificate in Spirituality after my PhD. Thanks for being part of what got me started down this weird and wonderful winding path – our brief interactions in Sheil made a deeper impression than you know!   

Wow!  Ministry is a humbling profession.  We never really know the depth of our impact.  Endeavors that were significant to me sometimes went unnoticed.  On the other hand, I am amazed when students remember the smallest favors or words exchanged in quick succession.  I’ve heard students repeat lines from my classes, retreat talks, and late night conversations – even many years later.  Little do we know the impact we have or the reason why God has situated us in a particular place at a particular time. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman’s prayer “Some Definite Service” provides some wonderful reflection during times of discernment.  He reminds us that God indeed has a plan for our life.  And there is something in particular that God desires for us, although we may never see the fruits of it in this lifetime.  We are able to serve God in every time and season of life.  God uses every part of us to accomplish his divine work.

Some Definite Service

Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman

God knows me and calls me by my name.…

God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me
     which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission—I never may know it in this life,
     but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…
     I have a part in this great work;
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection
     between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good,
     I shall do His work;
I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth
     in my own place, while not intending it,
     if I do but keep His commandments
     and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him.
     Whatever, wherever I am,
     I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be
     necessary causes of some great end,
     which is quite beyond us.
He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life,
     He may shorten it;
     He knows what He is about.
     He may take away my friends,
     He may throw me among strangers,
     He may make me feel desolate,
     make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—
     still He knows what He is about.…
Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—
     I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

from Meditations and Devotions,
“Meditations on Christian Doctrine,”
“Hope in God—Creator”, March 7, 1848

I am grateful for these reminders today.  I am especially grateful for the many people who have written to tell me how they see the impact my work has had on their life.  It helps me to name my gifts, my strengths, my priorities, and my successes as I enter further into the job search.  And it also provides a tremendous amount of hope that God is using my life for his purpose (in ways that are paid and unpaid, career related and personally fulfilling) even if I don’t see the end result quite yet.


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Chocolate Chip Spirituality

DSC00924It is a good thing that I did not give up cookies for Lent!

Last week was Reading Week at Northwestern University, and the Student Advisory Board at the Sheil Catholic Center enthusiastically hosts “study days”, where we dole out an extra dose of Sheil hospitality.  Our volunteers conjure up inordinate amounts of snack food while the staff pours out endless amounts of encouragement onto hard studying students.

As a special treat, I decided to mix up a batch of the perfect chocolate cookies! Not long after setting out this tray of sweet treats, I ran into Kelsey – who quickly snagged a cookie and later asked if I had a secret recipe! 

There is no secret, just a couple of tricks that I learned in the kitchen.  Kelsey and I swapped our favorite baking techniques, including this one straight from the cookie recipe, which requires that you remove the cookies from the oven while they’re still a bit under-done and let them sit on the hot cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.  The secret to soft chewy cookies is to not over bake them!  Remember, cookies continue to bake, even after removing them from the oven. 

I must admit, the first batch was a bit crispy for my own taste, but no one else seemed to notice.  Three dozen cookies were devoured within a matter of hours!  I decided to make a second batch the next night, and put the “cookies continue to bake” theory to the test. 

With every batch, I winced at taking them out too soon, yet resisted the urge to keep them in the oven for just one more minute.  After precisely 12 minutes, I removed them from the oven while they were puffy, domed, beginning to brown, and still looking slightly under cooked.  Then I diligently set the timer for another 5 minutes, letting the cookies continue to bake outside the oven.  

As I waited for dough to settle, I wondered (metaphorically of course), “How often are we tempted to keep the cookies in the oven just a little bit longer?” 

How often are we so elated after a spiritual experience that we proclaim with excitement, “I wish we could just stay here!”  For some it is an enriching retreat weekend or a much needed vacation.  I hear students say this after a life-changing service immersion trip or an unforgettable study abroad experience.  It might be an encounter with an unbelievably beautiful sunset or the energizing runner’s high at the end of a long run. 

Like Peter, James, and John who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, we long to remain on the mountain top.  We wish for the intensity of the moment to last forever.  Yet despite the joy they bring or the insights we gain, we know that these dramatic experiences cannot be sustained for long.  What appears to the untrained eye to be a bit “not long enough” is in fact the perfect amount of time.  Those moments continue to bake to completion, and we appreciate their rich gooey goodness even more once they’re incorporated into our everyday lives.

Every year I hear this from our students who return from our international service immersion trips.  They spend weeks and months making sense of their time spent with the poor of Nicaragua or Haiti.  It was Kelsey herself who offered this reflection just days after our cookie conversation!  They wonder about the ways their lives have been changed.  They see the impact it has on their world view.  It makes a difference in the ways they see themselves, and their understanding of God.  Their priorities shift, it may impact how they make decisions about life after college, and their lives continue to be transformed.

The same could be said about an intense retreat experience.  I continue to watch the graces unfold and reach back to some of the more profound moments in prayer from some of my more memorable retreats. 

Today, it strikes me that we could also use the cookie analogy with this great season of Lent.  40 days is certainly enough time to break old habits and start new patterns of living.  In other ways, though, there is much that feels “slightly underdone”. 

Perhaps that is something to pay attention to as we enter into Holy Week.  What work has God begun throughout this Lenten season, and what still needs to be brought to completion as we bask in the glow of Easter?

Remember, the cookies will continue to bake even after you take them out of the oven!

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Young Women Making a Difference

This week, the National Catholic Reporter recognized 12 young women making a difference in the Church.  I am honored to be counted among this group!  As I watched the news spread via Facebook, I was incredibly grateful for the accolades and curious about some of the criticisms of the article.

I was challenged in a particular way by this comment which was posted on Fr. Jim Martin’s facebook page:

@ Ana Vargas: I would love it if these 12 women could nominate another 12 women who – without the benefit of doctorates and masters degrees – are also models of the faith and are building up the Church. As an intellectual I am always humbled by the sanctity of those uneducated or even illiterate saints.  St. Bernadette, St. Martin de Porres, pray for us.

Ana, you are so right. There are so many women in the world who are making a difference in their communities and advancing the mission of the Gospel without the benefit of formal education.  Education is a gift and a privilege. It does not make any one of us more worthy of recognition.

Each woman on this list is impressive in her accomplishments and deserving of recognition.  Yet there is a definite bias toward privilege.  I imagine this is as much a reflection on the average NCR reader and those who nominated us, as it is a reflection of the nominees themselves.

Also missing from this list of “young women” are those under age 29.  I work with young women between the ages of 18-25 every single day.  While they are not yet fully established in their careers, they never cease to amaze me.  They are truly making a difference in the church, some locally and others on a global scale.

When I was in my early-20s, there were so many women who encouraged me in my faith and supported me in following my dreams.  I would often wonder why they were so generous!  Each of them, without reservation, told me to pay it forward.  When you have the chance 5, 10, 15 years from now – give something back to another young woman.

So, below is my own list of young women who are making a difference – all under the age of 30.  Yes, all of the women on this list are college educated, and some of them even have Master’s degrees.  (It’s my list, and I admit that I am biased!)  However, none of them take this for granted.  They are talented and smart. They are committed to lives of prayer and service. They are making a difference in their communities and in our Church.  (And I am so proud of them!)

Christina Rosales (Loredo, TX) – Christina is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News with a passion for human interest stories.  She is an excellent journalist!  She speaks with authority because she speaks from a heart filled with compassion and justice.

Kim Brightmore (Chicago, IL) – Kim teaches third grade at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.  She is dedicated to Catholic education and brings a smile and sense of humor to her classroom. Her enthusiasm for faith and her desire to see God in all things is contagious.

Katie Kustusch (Chicago, IL) – Katie is a Missionary of Compassion with Hearts Home International currently serving in El Salvador.  She is committed to sharing the joy of Jesus with those on the margins of society.

Lillianna Franco (Chicago, IL) – This former Miss Illinois Teen Latina is committed to making a difference in the Latino/a community. She strives each day to inspire and motivate other young women to succeed.  During her time at Northwestern, she was co-leader of NU Inter Varsity’s “LaFe” chapter and led our annual mission trip to Nicaragua.

Karla Santana (Managua, Nicaragua) – Karla works with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation in Managua, Nicaragua.  She is committed to the children of her country and their future.  She is a beacon of hope in the face of adversity.

Anna Bisaro (Warwick, NY) – Anna is a budding journalist with deep sense of social justice. She has held internships in both Italy and South Africa, and she is an avid tri-athlete. Anna strives to make the world a better place by sharing stories and making a positive change for those in need.

Rachel Grubb (Knoxville, TN) – Rachel was received into the Catholic Church this past year.  She is completely and utterly in love with her newfound faith!  She recently completed her Masters in Orchestral Conducting and plays violin with the Knoxville Symphony.

Christina Landauer (Arlington, VA) – Christi is a beautiful wife, mother, and friend.  She strives to live out the teachings of the Church in her everyday life and pass them on to her children.  And she is incredibly strong-willed just like her daughter!

Christina Paschyn (Parma, OH) – Christina is an experienced international journalist who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Doha, Qatar.  She is passionate about women’s issues in the church and society at large.

Diana Martinez (Chicago, IL) – Diana is a rising senior at Northwestern, president of her sorority, and former student chair of Northwestern Students for Life.  Last summer, Diana served as an intern at a local adoption agency, and she is an outspoken advocate for the unborn.

It amazes me that God would allow me the privilege to journey with each of these young women and so many others (women and men!) who walk through the doors of the Sheil Catholic Center each week.  As my friend and fellow nominee Christine Riley says, “It doesn’t mean anything if you’re not helping anybody else along.”

I challenge you!  What have you done, what will you do today, to support and encourage young women in their walk with Christ and in their desire to make a difference in the world? 

Many thanks to Sr. Margaret Feldner, Sr. Shirley Finnegan, Sr. Louise Hembrecht, Sr. Janet May, Sr. Barbara Bowe, Sharon Rief, Roxanne Rochester, Peggy Burke, Kathy Lunsky, Elizabeth Dreyer, Lisa Biedenbach, etc. etc. who believed in my gifts and encouraged me to follow that small, still voice of God calling me to service and ministry.  I would not be the woman I am today without you!

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Baccalaureate Benediction

I was invited to give the closing benediction at the University Baccalaureate service last week at Northwestern.  What an honor!  It is always a privilege to journey with our students each year, and it is a bittersweet day when we bid them farewell at the end of four (or more!) years. It was truly a blessing for me to bestow this blessing on each of them.  I received several compliments on the text, including a request for a copy from one mom – who also happens to be a former campus minister.  Here is the complete blessing, along with the appropriate scripture citations.

Let us pray:

Blessed are you, God of all Ages, for you have been a dwelling place for us from one generation to the next (Psalm 90:1).

You have given us this day to rejoice in the good work you have begun in our graduates. We trust that you will see this work to completion in the ages to come; and so we ask your blessing upon them (Philippians 1:6):

May the God of all Creation – who numbered our days before a single one came to be (Psalm 139:16) – bless each one of you and prosper you from strength to strength (Isaiah 41:10).

May the God of all Wisdom – who sent holy prophets to guide and teach us – inspire you to act with integrity, speak the truth with love, and pursue justice for all people.

May the God of Infinite Compassion – whose love is brought to perfection in us, when we love one another (1 John 4:12) – stir your hearts to seek the common good, compel you to forgive your enemies and friends alike, and make you extravagant in your generosity to others.

May the God of all Salvation – the One who is slow to anger and abounding in mercy (Psalm 103:8) – keep you far from evil, rescue you from harm, and restore you to wholeness when trouble comes your way.

May the God of all Understanding – give meaning and purpose to your work, bring joy and new life to the people you meet, provide wisdom to discern what is right and courage to follow God’s will for your life.

May the Peace of God that transcends all understanding – guard your hearts and minds, calm your fears, relieve your doubts, and sustain you with hope (Philippians 4:7).

And may God’s blessing be upon each of you, and remain with you, forever and ever.


(photo credit by Northwestern University – with my wonderful colleagues Tahera Ahmed and Mary Deeley)


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Leaving a Legacy

“She speaks with authority because she speaks from the heart.”

I stumbled upon this quote posted on a student’s Facebook page.  Christina is a budding journalist, talented in her own right, who has much to teach me as a writer.  As a freshman in college, she told me that she loved journalism because it gives her the privilege of hearing people’s stories and sharing them with the world.  Today this rising senior is spending the summer at a major metropolitan newspaper, about to make her mark on the world.  I saw the quote while reading a story that she recently wrote about the plight of immigrants in Chicago.  Several times this spring, she recalled a serendipitous meeting with “Jorge” a teenager from Guatemala, who she profiled for her reporting class.  I find her profile stories especially moving, because she always strives to preserve people’s dignity while recounting their ability to overcome great obstacles.  She speaks with authority because she speaks from the heart. 

I don’t know when or why or under what circumstances Christina posted that quote onto her Facebook page.  Perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit for this, but that exact same quote is scribbled onto a pink post-it note stuck to the wall above my desk.  It was a comment from a wonderful mentor during our final performance evaluation conversation at the completion of my internship nearly five years ago.  A few months back, just as I was beginning this project on the Single Life, I remembered his encouraging words and prominently placed them within eyesight of my writing space.  As one of our spring retreat leaders, Christina consequently spent a lot of time in my office.  I suspect that quote made it from my office wall to her Facebook page, but only after it struck a chord in her heart.  

It is not the first time a student has quoted something that they found on my desk, repeated a phrase that I used in a retreat talk, or cited one of our late night conversations.  This week, stumbling upon that Facebook quote takes on a bit more significance.  It is Senior Week at Northwestern, and graduation takes place in less than 3 days.  As we prepare to bid farewell to our graduates, I’m struck by the all too familiar lump in my throat and heavy hearted feeling in my chest. 

Unlike a lot of single women, I will admit that I’ve never had a strong desire to have children of my own.  I may never know the same sense of pride that a parent feels or the kind of hurt and heartache that a parent endures.  However, there are days when I wonder what legacy I will leave behind.  Who or what will carry on when I am gone?

I’m encouraged by several students who have stopped by my office this week to talk.  Each year I lead a service trip to Nicaragua, and one of our students is returning there to volunteer this summer.  Another dropped off a copy of a final paper for which I was interviewed.  Two weeks ago, I watched with pride as students from our confirmation class stood at the altar of Holy Name Cathedral to be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  More than a few teary-eyed seniors have stopped by this week to say “thanks” for lessons learned these past four years. 

As I watch another class of students graduate, I am reminded that my presence here makes a difference, and I see the many ways that God has poured forth new life through our time together.  One of the keys to a fulfilling single life is that we take time to identify and celebrate the many ways, with or without children, that we create new life and leave a legacy for those who follow us.

Where is new life coming forth from your work and your place in the world?

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