Gordy DeMarais, SPO executive director, Christina Smith and Father Kevin Finnegan, SPO board vice president, recently talked with Pat Norby, The Catholic Spirit news editor, about St. Paul’s Outreach, a Catholic ministry on college campuses across the United States that they began in St. Paul 25 years ago in response to the church’s call for a “new evangeliza tion.” SPO reaches out to university students with the life-changing power of the Gospel through building relationships and faith-filled environments. Each year, thousands of students on campuses around the country are impacted by SPO’s work.
Following is an edited version of the conversation.
Founders reminisce about birth of St. Paul’s Outreach
In the 1970s, there was a work of renewal that was taking place in the context of the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center (which closed in 1989), and there were a number of expressions of that renewal that were connected and evolved into four distinct organizations:
- The Community of Christ the Redeemer, a lay community that provides a living witness of Christ.
- The Companions of Christ, which is [a] priests’ group.
- St. Paul’s Outreach, the college campus group.
- NET Ministries, an outreach to high school students.
The first group to separate out from the Catholic Youth Center structure was the Community of Christ the Redeemer. As young people got involved our youth work, our university work, not only were they experiencing a profound reawakening of their faith, they were experiencing a call to live that faith in a very practical daily way, and that’s how it emerged.
The Community of Christ the Redeemer has been this expression of communion, which extends the formative and evangelistic work into marriage and family life.
The community, which provided financial support in SPO’s early days, is trans-generational, people from birth to seniors, now. It was a witness of Christian, Catholic, marriage and family life for the university students as these students were sorting out their vocational choices.
Why were you three chosen to start SPO?
I was at the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center and worked as the volunteer coordinator. I knew all the people on the different campuses. I knew all their names, how they related. A lot of those people became outreach staff.
Father Kevin Finnegan:
In the early 1980s, NET Ministries at Catholic Youth Center was doing retreats and the staff for the retreats was college students. The desire was to help college students not just do something good, but be holy and live good lives. St. Paul’s Outreach began to help by getting them in small groups and giving them good teaching.
Gordy and Christina were on staff and I was just coming off a year of NET Ministries. The three of us were just a part of it and we said, “Let’s start meeting to figure out how to do this.”
As we thought about these volunteers who would be doing the high-school-youth work, we realized they needed more catechesis and formation and faith development. We divided them up according to their campuses. Then each of the CYC staff persons were assigned to campuses.
You begin to do some formation with them, you begin to pull them together, you have a relationship with them. The more you start to dig into the university world, you see that not only do these people need more faith formation, but there’s a tremendous evangelistic opportunity on college campuses. There were a lot of kids going off to college campuses, even back then, and losing their faith. That’s when we began to think about more direct ministry on college campuses.
How did SPO evolve?
I saw the gift of Newman Center on campus, but I also saw its inadequacies — that it was an institutional format. I saw the need for that individual person moving out into the university campus like the yeast in the dough as opposed to the other model that was typical for many Catholic campuses, which set up a lot of programs, but didn’t get into classrooms and into the lunchroom and into the clubs.
Father Kevin Finnegan:
The saying “Location, location, location” is true. The location isn’t here, it’s wherever the student is. On a deeper level, location is wherever that person is personally. Every person is different. You have to bring and be with each person as she or he is and help that person grow in faith.
Dormitory life is not conducive to a strong Catholic Christian formation. In fact it pulls you in a different direction.
I had two experiences of somebody reaching out to me and my faith coming alive, then realizing that if I’m going to live that faith well, I need a strong supportive environment and I need someone to teach me how to live that faith well. I think those were the seed experiences that formed the vision for SPO and the method that developed.
We really took a relational approach to ministry with the accent being on that one-to-one relationship of sharing faith and believing that faith is catchy.
Father Kevin Finnegan:
A third aspect is the catechesis of formation that goes with it. You are drawn to someone. You are drawn to God. Your faith is awakened. It’s in a community and you see others living their faith, and there is a strong emphasis on how to live, how to relate well, how to say I’m sorry, please forgive me, how to share your faith.
Why is SPO needed today?
Father Kevin Finnegan:
If you go fishing and you want to catch a fish, there are a thousand different lures. Every person is attracted or drawn, distinctly. In SPO, all these people are fishing lures. I may not be the person to reach out to Christina, but to Gordy. But then there is the whole mystery of the faith. It is a gift from God. It is the Holy Spirit working.
What is at the heart of our Catholic faith is that God is real, God is present, he has a purpose and a plan in my life. He talks to me, he speaks to me. I can have a relationship with him and that relationship can give purpose and meaning and direction and hope to my life. Every person is built in the structure of their being with this relationship with God. Our approach is to witness to that by our love for God and one another.
Students are just searching for something that will make them happy and give them aim in their lives. We are helping them see what they are going after as a source of fulfillment. If it’s not Christ, it’s a dead-end road. I was struck by how hungry young people are for something more solid then what they’re finding on college campuses today.
Father Kevin Finnegan:
People are coming from the wealthiest generation in the history of the world [but many families, today, are fractured and broken]. I think young people today are more open and generous and desiring something more then money. When they have an opportunity to serve and give to people in need, there is something wonderful happening. You have to tap into that. Then you see that fruit in the rest of their lives.
One of the great joys is seeing the way our alumni are living their vocation in priesthood, religious life, marriage and family life. This wasn’t just a college experience. This is an experience that has formed the rest of their lives to the point where there are SPO alumni children involved in this work.
We are doing the same thing today as when we began — creating strong, relational environments of faith on college campuses; training young people to embrace their faith, know their faith, live their faith, share that faith with others; sending them out to relationally evangelize their peers; and bringing them into a community of faith and a program that helps that faith become alive and be awakened; and training and forming that faith to maturity in strong, loving communities.
Father Kevin Finnegan:
It’s a whole sense of helping someone realize, “I am loved by God and God has a mission for me,” which is different then, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
That’s the great question: “What is God’s mission for my life?”
You begin asking the question in the context that: God knows me, God loves me, God cares for me, God tends to me, God delights in me. That’s why parents are so important. A parent says you are loved: “Even if you flunk math, I will still love you.” It gives them freedom to keep getting up and falling down.
What impact did SPO have on your life?
Father Kevin Finnegan
It formed my life. One way is that SPO showed me that the Holy Spirit is alive and doing all kinds of cool things, and I can be a part of that. Also, I learned that ministry is not about the priest doing it, it’s about all of us doing it. It’s about parish, and movement and that the church is broad, and we should be aware of that and attentive to that and be open to that and embrace that. It gives me a sense of hope — there are young people who want to be alive and are alive and it’s not about me making it happen.
The dynamics of the St. Paul Catholic Youth Center and the young adult community of faith and mission that developed there was instrumental in changing the whole of my life — from not going to church and not living morally, to a deep, profound awareness and experience of God’s love and God’s mercy that set me on a course that impacted and changed the whole of my life.
I seriously looked at single life for the Lord, to priesthood, to bringing me into relationship with this woman [Teresa] who’s become my wife now of 25 years. The fact that this woman would consider marrying me and the rich family life we’ve had, the six children we now have, this movement has changed my whole life.
Being in leadership in SPO has taken that initial experience I had and continually reinforced it, as I see what I experienced being experienced again and again in the lives of so many people throughout the years. What that does is renew your own experience of faith and strengthen it and deepen your faith and confidence and hope in God.
It’s given me a great sense of confidence in God’s desire to renew the church, just in seeing how he worked in us — the little three.
People ask what SPO was like in the beginning days.
We were just three ordinary people just taking the next step and God blessed that. Seeing the history of SPO gives you a greater hope for God’s marvelous work in our church today of bringing renewal and refreshment for God’s Catholic people. Just seeing how God worked in the past 25 years, and the hope and confidence that he’s behind us.
I am reminded of the story of the loaves and fishes in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was preaching and people needed to be fed and all that the boy had was laughable.
The Lord took that small offering and multiplied it in a way that fed 25,000 people.
That’s my experience of looking back over the 25-year history. I know the human material that’s been involved. You add up the sum of all the human material and you look at the fruit and the fruit far extends what the human material could produce.
That is the testimony to continue to offer — the invitation to live as John Paul II called us to, with generosity of life, offering all we have to the Lord and saying, “Use this for your glory” and he will.
Mother Teresa said we are called to be faithful and obedient and it’s God who gives the grace.
It’s not a business where you do this thing and you will hit this mark. We do not control the essential factors that go into our effectiveness. We have no control over God’s grace. We have no control of a young person saying yes to that grace. All we can do is be a witness to our own life and set up the environment and context, which allows the individual to encounter God and his free gift of faith. As long as we keep doing that, God will use this to minister to his people through us. Catholic Spirit
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