By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 28, 2010
Students grab slices of hot Papa John’s pizza from the dining room table, plop down on the comfortable couches, bar stools, folding chairs, getting ready to dissect, discuss and disagree.
The nearly three dozen University of Georgia students cram the apartment above the Catholic Center for Thursday Night Theology when they put aside their assigned school reading to chew over their faith.
But this time they talk about the rescue of the Chilean miners, a bit of good news that grabbed the world’s attention.
There was talk of a shrine, the catacombs, selflessness; a Christian community buried two Empire State Buildings deep underground.
“Each person brought their strength,” said student Chris Holmes about how the group survived.
Another said the world saw people united in a single mission to rescue the men.
“You hear people talking about it all over the world. It really shows our capacity to care,” said one.
The Catholic Center: ‘This Was Home’
The Catholic Center at the university is the spiritual home to several hundred Catholic students.
Michelle Kearney, 20, an early childhood education student, found herself here after exploring other campus religious organizations.
“When I came here, I didn’t know anybody. I tried everything on campus, except the Catholic church. But once I did, I stopped everything. This was home,” said Kearney, a junior.
The Catholic Center is one of 28 religious ministries on campus. Franciscan Father Tom Vigliotta, the center’s director, said he’s heard other ministers compliment the center’s work “as being the envy of all the ministers on campus.”
The university ministry is the size of a medium-sized parish. Some 700 faculty and university staff families are registered at the Catholic Center, and there is a full-fledged religious education program for children taught by many college students. Some 40 teens were recently confirmed.
Father Tom, a 61-year-old native of New York, sees his role as helping students grow into mature Catholics, or, as he put it, to help them “get off the milk and get in the solid food.”
“Mostly, I’m trying to stir the pot to get them thinking,” he said, sitting in the center’s library before the students arrive. He has on wire-rimmed glasses, a maroon golf shirt and is soft spoken. He has been here since 2005.
During the summer, Father Tom and the other campus minister, Franciscan Father David Hyman, marked 25 and 50 years of ordination, respectively.
“I hope we did something here that they go and share their faith,” Father Tom said of the hoped-for impact on students. “They are just passing through. They will have a lot of offer.”
Thursday Night Theology
This week’s conversation at Thursday Night Theology begins with senior Sarah Allen leading the prayer.
Nearly all the students hold this semester’s book, “The Naked Now” by Father Richard Rohr. But now all the conversation is focused on the Chilean miners.
Father Tom peppers the students with questions. What do you call places where Christians worshipped underground? Where do Catholics go where special things have taken place?
The mine became like a catacomb and a shrine.
“Wonderful things can happen in the catacombs,” Father Tom said.
Students talked about how people went to great lengths to save 33 men, while injustices go unreported or are allowed to happen, such as abortion.
The miners came together as a community, which allowed them to survive. A student mentions how each miner wanted to be the last person rescued.
Devyn Scheuch, a religion and German major, said she was struck by how one miner thought to carry rocks from the mine to give to people on the surface.
“He was being rescued, but he was thinking of others,” she said.
“Who would’ve thought CNN would be the display case of holiness?” said Father Tom.
From Spiritual Formation To Fun
For almost 60 years, Franciscans have ministered to students, faculty and staff at the University of Georgia. The ministry, which began in a small white house on Cloverhurst Street, expanded in 1968 to a chapel and split-level center. Father Tom leads the center’s administrative staff, which includes sisters along with other women and men.
The community’s big weekly celebration is the 5 p.m. Sunday student Mass, with three other services on Saturday and Sunday. At the student Mass, the round chapel is filled to capacity, leaving it standing room only. Students serve as lectors, Eucharistic ministers and ushers, or fill the seats in the large choir. Afterwards, they pour into the center for dinner prepared by volunteers.
The center offers the students spiritual formation, outreach and fun. Activities run from the Francis Days, when the community celebrates the life and philosophies of St. Francis of Assisi, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, to alternative spring breaks when students visited rural Kentucky for service projects and intramural sports teams.
Thursday Night Theology is one of the programs. The students dive into the faith, from reading “Catholics Going Green” to “The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism.”
Seventy-five books have been given out this semester, although the apartment can only hold about 35 people at a time.
Friends And Exploring the Faith
Some students find the center helps them explore their faith by encouraging a scholarly approach to understand it.
“I have learned a lot about Franciscan spirituality and have met a ton of people who are very deep in their own faith. I have learned a lot from them, especially during TNT,” said Scheuch, 20, who is from Johns Creek and attends St. Benedict Church.
Allen said she puts aside schoolwork for the Thursday gatherings.
“These meetings have become a necessity for me on my faith journey. It is easy to get distracted by school and everything around me and so attending groups such as TNT at the Catholic Center allows me to take a step back and focus on what is really important and really listen to what God wants for me.”
“I am always eager to hear what other students got from the reading. The discussions are extremely intense and really challenge me to think about things in a way I never have before. The discussions are always profound,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Nick Fouriezos, a freshman journalism student from Cumming, said his faith hasn’t changed, but his perspective on it has.
“Through our TNT sessions, I’ve learned to be more open to expanding my faith but also delving deeper into it, without fear of losing something in the process,” said Fouriezos, who attended Pinecrest Academy and Good Shepherd Church.
Megan Kalany, a psychology student from Marietta, said priests and students together create an atmosphere where questions are explored.
“I definitely take a more scholarly approach to my faith,” said Kalany, who attends Transfiguration Church at home.
The students form tight friendships at the center even as they live in dorms with hundreds of others.
John Hobgood called it a “true community rooted in Christ. All my really good friends are here in the Catholic church. It’s not really a social club, it’s a community.”
Hobgood, 20, a history and music business student, had a lukewarm connection to the church as a teen. He attended Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, and Westminster Schools.
“I wasn’t deeply involved in high school. I sang at the high school Mass, but that didn’t last long,” he said.
But at UGA, living on his own, Hobgood had a roommate who called himself an “agnostic deist” and the two talked over long conversations. Hobgood pursued his faith. “I’d ask questions and then I’d answer them through reading or talking to people,” he said. “I’m Catholic, through and through.”
At the book club, students dive into the four-page chapter about judgment as the conversation is steered toward finding God with both one’s heart and head.
There wasn’t a conclusion to the evening to wrap it up nicely in a bow. Just questions.
Fouriezos wrestled with how to understand another’s point when it differs from his own. “Some of it has to be true, some of it has to be wrong,” he said.
One student said, “I like to hear what others say. I like to be challenged.”
The Catholic Center at UGA is one of eight campus ministries in the Atlanta Archdiocese. The Georgia Bulletin is profiling them in an ongoing series.