The Mysteries to be Lived: Journey of Christian Initiation

Deep discussions in philosophy class; walking 17 miles a day with blistered feet to raise money for charity; praying together at Wednesday night Mass — just a day in the life of a Saint Anselm College student. This uniquely thoughtful college experience, unsurprisingly, often turns out to be a personal pilgrimage, where young adults ask, "Who am I? Who do I want to be?" Questions lead to answers, which point a new path; and for some, an intimate journey in faith.

Michael Schmidt ’17 receives the Sacrament of ConfirmationThis past academic year, 21 members of the college community (19 students, one staff member, and an alumna) took that journey together. Questioning, praying, and reflecting on their beliefs, they ultimately decided to publicly demonstrate their commitment to their faith by presenting themselves for the Sacraments of Christian Initiation. On April 23 at Mass in the Abbey Church, the candidates received the gifts of baptism, first communion, and confirmation. With sacred water, holy oil, many blessings, and a standing ovation from the college community, the “tremendous 21” as Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B., fondly called them, became the largest group in recent memory to complete the college’s Preparation for the Sacraments program.

Seeking Faith

College-aged millennials are touted as less likely to a affiliate with any religion. A Religious Landscape Study completed by The Pew Research Center in 2014 suggests that overall the U.S. public is becoming less religious, and therefore as millennials enter adulthood and generational replacement occurs, the overall number of religiously-affiliated adults declines. The study found “36% of young millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older millennials (ages 25-33)” compared to older generations who have greater affiliations.

Which is why, says Susan Gabert ’91, Director of Campus Ministry, “it’s such a powerful and beautiful thing that our students make the decision to con rm their faith.”

“There are all sorts of reasons why they come to us,” says Sue. “Some come from a faith-filled family background but did not receive the sacraments for a variety of reasons. Other folks
did not have faith as part of their family background but they nonetheless decided to seek it and commit to it. There are all sorts of stories in the mix that brings candidates to this decision.”

Abbot Matthew attributes the candidates’ decision to declare their life-long commitment to the Church to timing: God’s timing and theirs.

“It was the common experience of this year’s 21 candidates that this was the right moment to re-commit themselves to an adult understanding and practice of the faith,” says Abbot Matthew.

“That’s what happened to this 21, each and in their own way, were seeking more and we provided the venue for them to do so.” This was the case for Ryan Ford, a resident director in the Office of Residential Life and Education, who was confirmed this spring. He attended a residence life program in Dominic Hall led by Abbot Matthew, which the students referred to as “Meatballs with Matt.” “I thought it was almost meant to be that I happened to be working here after wondering about confirmation for so long,” says Ryan.

The Mysteries to be Lived: Journey of Christian InitiationAbbot Matthew says that often those adults who seek baptism have little to no experience with religion, whereas those seeking confirmation have been introduced to what faith means, but for whatever reason, did not take the next step in confirming their faith. “Sometimes, they have been pondering and questioning the role of faith in their lives and while here on campus have gained a new understanding of the importance of that,” he said.

Sue Gabert echoes Abbot Matthew’s sentiments, and adds that the college community fosters and supports the kind of environment that makes “standing up” not only feasible, but admirable.

“What we’re doing is what Catholic higher education is about,” says Sue. “They [the candidates] were able to expand upon campus opportunities to really grow, both in and out of the classroom, so that their spiritual lives are a very intricate part of their time here on the Hilltop in a very explicit way. And that’s what’s happening at college age—they’re figuring out how they want to impact the world, what are the decisions they’re going to make.”

Rising senior Kelsey Frahlich says her overall experience at Saint Anselm, especially her time on a Campus Ministry-sponsored Service & Solidarity Missions trip to the Dominican Republic, reinforced her decision to be baptized and confirmed. “When I became a student at Saint Anselm, just being a part of the community made me feel closer to God, and many of the experiences I have had here have led me to this decision,” says Kelsey.

The nursing major shares stories about her international service experience where she had “God moments,” seeing Him present in the high and low points of her day. She says the faith-based trip reassured her that she wanted to continue the preparation program when she returned to campus: “When I came back second semester, it was very clear that this was the right path.”

Recent graduate Michael Schmidt ’17, who received the Sacrament of Confirmation, also cited the college’s role in his decision. He spoke of philosophy and theology course requirements that prompted contemplation, as well as conversations with members of the college community, as major influences in his decision.

The candidates, who vary in age and major, cite different reasons for taking the next step in their life of faith at this particular point in their lives. Some point to grandparents as motivation, others felt that an aspect of their life was lacking.

For alumna Gwen Goodwin ’05, it was a combination of timing and being part of the college community that drove her to finally find a solution to her questions of how, where, and when might she be confirmed. She already felt it was important to her to take that step, but she hadn’t found a program that was a good fit.

With her nuptials in the Abbey Church approaching, Gwen met with Sue, learned about the college’s program, and was welcomed into this year’s group by Abbot Matthew.

“From the moment I stepped on the Hilltop as a freshman, I felt like Saint Anselm was exactly where I needed to be. It has been a place of academic, personal, and spiritual growth from day one,” says Gwen. “As I sat in the pews at the Welcome Mass for the candidates, my eyes welled up with gratitude as I was reminded, yet again, of the love, compassion, and grace within the Saint Anselm community.”

Preparing for the Rites

Twenty-one candidates had 21 personal reasons for demonstrating their commitment to their faith, with 21 different perspectives on what a life of faith means to them; but they shared a common experience through Abbot Matthew and the Preparation for the Sacraments Program.

Provided by the Office of Campus Ministry, Sue Gabert says the preparation program points to the roots of Campus Ministry’s mission. It’s modeled after the Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) Program but geared specifically towards college students. The classes, led by Abbot Matthew, offered these young adults a different venue for learning and discussing matters of faith as well as what it means to be a member of the Catholic Church.

“We want to support young men and women, and faculty and staff, as much as we can in growing in their faith journey but that journey is not ours, it’s theirs,” says Sue. “They have to form their own conscience. We provide them with the resources to do it.”

Beginning in September, candidates attended hour-long classes on Wednesday nights,
in which Abbot Matthew walked the group through distinctive elements of Catholicism, including issues that are important for faith formation. With a heavy emphasis on questions, the group pondered topics including how to pray, what is marriage, what is the Eucharist, what role does Mary play; what is the Christian moral life?

Abbot Matthew varied the format by including videos, bringing in guest speakers, and letting the candidate’s questions guide the discussion. “It was about building a relationship with God and learning how to act through him in ways that we should,” says Kelsey.

Referencing a quote from philosopher Gabriel Marcel (“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived”), Abbot Matthew says, “My intent and hope throughout the year was to introduce them to the mysterious power of God’s love and mercy as vital forces in their lives, past, present, and future.”

During Lent, Abbot Matthew gave his students a prayer emphasizing the season as more than just a time of fasting but a time of “feasting” on positive behaviors and thoughts.

MaKayla Sterling ’18 found Abbot Matthew’s Lenten prayer particularly relevant, inspiring her to give up worrying and pessimism for appreciation and optimism. “I have continued to give these things up and feel much more at peace,” she says.

The Sacrament of Matrimony class led by Sue struck a chord with Gwen, who left that night excited to share her new perspective on marriage with her fiancé.

Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B. with 21 RCIA candidatesGuiding His Flock

A distinctive aspect to the college’s program is that Abbot Matthew, as abbot emeritus,
has permission to celebrate confirmations, which traditionally would be bestowed by the Bishop. “It’s extra special not only because Abbot Matthew is in Campus Ministry or at Saint Anselm, but because he instructs them, which makes it an intimate ceremony,” says Sue.

So, just as he shepherded the group of candidates through the process, sharing in their journey, teaching and nurturing them, Abbot Matthew was there to bless and welcome them as they entered more deeply into the faith community.

Gwen believes it’s just another testament to her experience as an Anselmian. “For me, it was such a symbol of what the college and faith stood for—so welcoming and genuinely happy that people are making this choice.”

Abbot Matthew, who was immensely proud of his flock for taking this step as adults, shared in their joy at Mass. He baptized two students (Kelsey Frahlich and rising sophomore Maquila Dimastrantonio) and then confirmed all 21 students and gave six their first communion.

Upon receiving the Sacraments, the candidates were asked to turn to face the congregation, and were greeted with cheering and sincere excitement; a momentous occasion for all, including their sponsors, family, friends, the Church, and the college.

“As a Catholic and Benedictine institution, we are in the unique position to be able to engage our students in spiritual growth, witnessing and then joining them on their journey,” says Sue. “We, in Campus Ministry, couldn’t have been more filled with joy to journey with this class of 21 as they made this commitment to their faith.”

At the end of Mass, Abbot Matthew blessed Anselmian medals of Saint Benedict, which he then presented to the newly confirmed members of the Catholic faith community.

“They are proud to be Anselmians,” says Abbot Matthew. “I gave them the medal as a token to tie them to the college.”

Upon completing their shared journey, the “tremendous 21” assembled one last time the following week to celebrate with homemade pizza—made by Abbot Matthew, of course.

Aside from attending Mass more, Kelsey says she’ll carry the lessons she learned with her, finding a church this summer to attend and remembering the “powerful” Lenten prayer. She knows she’s changed, saying, “I’ve learned how to be a better version of myself.”

MaKayla says she has a closer relationship with God, while Maquila believes she might not have gone through with the program if not for the support of the college.

“I came to Saint Anselm for sports but realized there is a lot more to the school than that—the community here is so special.”

Gwen claims that completing the classes now gave her a greater appreciation for being confirmed not as a 14-year-old, but as an adult.

“I am so happy to have had the opportunity to make the Sacrament of Confirmation here, and in September to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage in the Abbey Church,” says Gwen. “Because it will always be home, and as they say, ‘home is where the heart is.’”