The president of the University of Missouri sees the St. Thomas More Newman Center as a powerful resource not just for Catholics, but for the entire university.
It promotes service, builds authentic community, creates connections on campus and helps students persevere through graduation, according to Dr. Mun Choi, president of the four-campus UM system and chancellor of its flagship Columbia campus.
“It provides positive motivation, fellowship with others and an opportunity to think spiritually, beyond the material world and the mundane things that bring stress and concern,” Dr. Choi stated.
The university president visited the Newman Center, hub of Catholic ministry on the Columbia campus, on Oct. 30.
Joining him were Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center parish, and Father Paul Clark, associate pastor.
Dr. Choi said he was struck by the contemplative environment at the Newman Center, especially in the chapel.
“My first impression was how peaceful and tranquil it is,” he said.
He was pleased to learn about the center’s purpose and mission.
“What really struck a chord with me was that students can go there to study but just as importantly reflect on their work and their life and discuss it in a manner in which they won’t be judged,” he said.
“And obviously whenever I meet people of faith, I deeply appreciate the work they do for each other, the community and society at large, regardless of the faith of the people they are helping,” he added.
Bishop McKnight and the priests spoke with Dr. Choi while giving him a tour of the complex, which is a spiritual home for students and faculty as well as Catholic parishioners of all ages.
Dr. Choi was particularly impressed with the Wall of Saints, displaying images of canonized saints from all over the world.
“Being in that space and seeing portraits of Mother Theresa and other incredible people who devoted their lives to helping others can only have a positive impact on the work the students do and will pursue after they graduate,” he stated.
Here and beyond
Fr. Merz pointed out that students have the option of stating their religious affiliation when they apply to attend the University of Missouri.
Of those in the current freshman class who exercised that option, about one-third said they are Catholic.
“And there may be many more who chose not to answer,” said Fr. Merz. “So I think the Catholic Church has a definite impact on the whole character of the university.”
He asked Dr. Choi if it would be possible to ask the students who answer the religion question for permission to share their contact information with representatives of their religious group on campus.
Dr. Choi said he liked the idea and would look into it.
Fr. Merz said the St. Thomas More Newman Center enjoys a good relationship with the university through an organization called the Association of Campus Religious Advisors (ACRA), with representatives of religious groups that minister on campus.
He said the Newman Center’s main purpose is to connect Catholic students, faculty and university staff members to Christ and the Gospel.
“We believe that makes them better students, better citizens, better people,” he said.
Students who encounter or re-encounter Christ carry their faith out into the workplace and ultimately transform the culture, “and our culture needs a lot of transforming,” the priest stated.
He said the Newman Center also plays an important role in helping students put the social teachings of the Church into practice by helping people in need.
He pointed out that the Church — and by extension, the Newman Center — proposes the Gospel to everyone but imposes it on no one.
He said the Newman Center’s priests and staff have noticed increased stress and anxiety among students in these difficult times. The center is looking into hiring a full-time counselor/spiritual director to help students who are seeking those services.
He pointed out that Newman Centers throughout the world are named in honor of St. Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century churchman and convert to Catholic Christianity.
Cardinal Newman consistently championed faith formation and religious studies as part of a proper university education.
The Catholic Church declared him a saint in 2019.
Columbia’s Newman Center also bears the name of St. Thomas More, an English jurist who surrendered his own life in 1535 rather than betray the Catholic Church and the objective truth it upholds on marriage.
“Christ is our peace, Christ is our hope,” Fr. Merz noted. “We’re living in this country and are citizens of this country, but our hope lies well beyond this place.
“So we’re always in tension between being called to pray for and support and build up the place where we live and knowing that our true home is in heaven, not here,” he said.
United in mission
Fr. Clark was impressed with Dr. Choi’s understanding of the importance of people forming authentic relationships as part of their college experience.
The priest said one of the many blessings of ministering at St. Thomas More Newman Center parish is to witness the students’ youthful hope in action.
“I don’t think there’s any denying the call to charity, the call to brotherly love, of service to our fellow human beings that pours fourth from our Catholic faith,” he said.
He said the Newman Center has an incredible staff that is fiercely united in mission and devoted to finding new solutions to age-old challenges.
“It’s incredible all the minds and experiences that are present here,” he said. “The variety and diversity of experiences — it’s great!”
He was quick to acknowledge the influence of the Dominican priests who led the Newman Center from 2006 to this past July.
He believes the university is right to expect its Catholic students to put the Gospel they profess into practice every day.
“We’re confident that the authentic discipleship we see happening right now, the relationships we see being formed among students will bear great fruit, now and in years to come,” he said.
Dr. Choi said he’s impressed by the diversity of religious groups that maintain an organized presence on the UM campus.
From various Christian groups to a Jewish Hillel to an Islamic mosque, “their presence illustrates that people of different faiths will be accepted and their presence here will be celebrated,” he said.
He is convinced that these groups “greatly enhance the resilience of our students as well as their abilities to complete their studies.”
“There’s nothing more important for us than having our students graduate with a degree,” he stated. “We see places like the Newman Center as being very important for that overall success.”
He lauded the Newman Center’s charitable outreach activities in the community, “which are very important for helping students see beyond themselves and understand the importance of giving rather than receiving.”
“For all those reasons, the Newman Center is a wonderful institution for us at the university,” he said.