Since its founding in 2005, University Catholic’s mission has always remained the same: “to propose Jesus Christ and form his disciples.”
For the last 15 years, this mission has been implemented first to serve students at Vanderbilt University and later expanded to include students from Belmont University, Aquinas College, Lipscomb University, Trevecca Nazarene University, all in Nashville, and Columbia State Community College in Columbia.
This year, that mission will extend its reach to students at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and Cumberland University in Lebanon as University Catholic is branded across their campus ministry programs.
Under the new branding umbrella, students at the schools outside Nashville will be able to participate in University Catholic events and retreats, and they will be able to duplicate certain events on their own campus.
“What we want to do is to provide every parish and campus ministry with all the resources that they need to be successful, and, at our big events, do it together,” said Father Gervan Menezes, University Catholic chaplain. “By doing this together, it would help everybody to be on the same page. We will share with them the resources they need to succeed in ministry and get the experience that we have as University Catholic.
“We understand that it is not a one-size-fits-all program,” he said. “We just want to help other schools to fulfill University Catholic’s mission.
“Since we’ve been doing this for 15 years, we have a good grasp on what works and what does not,” Father Menezes said. “For instance, we want all campuses to have some type of welcome week, that will help to welcome students and make them part of the UCAT community.
“We accompany students to have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and then they come and participate in our community, and then they will be formed to go out and propose Jesus again. It’s that cycle that keeps going, keeps giving.”
Father Menezes said that his dream is that each school will also eventually have its own group of Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, Missionaries who “meet students where they are and draw them into closer relationships with Christ,” according to the University Catholic website.
“This is a big dream, I know, but this is why everyone’s participation in the Bishop’s Annual Appeal for Ministries is so important,” he added. “Money does not grow on trees. We need everyone to support our evangelization efforts. Not necessarily to UCat but through UCat.”
To contribute to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, visit https://dioceseofnashville.com/appeal/.
Kevin Eberle, a Belmont senior and president of University Catholic at Belmont, said his college experience would be a “wholly incomplete picture” without mentioning University Catholic.
“From my very first week on campus, University Catholic has provided a safe refuge, a home away from home, for a young college student in a new city for the first time in his life,” Eberle said. “The community welcomed me in with open arms and immediately invited me into authentic friendship.
“Through intentional community and daily reception of the sacraments,” he added, “I continue to grow in my personal relationship with Christ and strive to shape my will to match our heavenly Father’s.
“I am overjoyed that University Catholic is expanding to campuses across the state,” Eberle said. “It is difficult to appreciate and prepare oneself for the challenges young adult Catholics face on a college campus. While University Catholic’s presence will not eliminate these challenges, the community provides relief from the seeming constant attacks of our culture.
“To all you who are searching for meaningful friendship: welcome to University Catholic,” Eberle said. “To all you who are searching for meaning in your life: welcome to University Catholic. To all of you whose life is full of pain and suffering: welcome to University Catholic. To all students, Catholic, Christian or otherwise: welcome to University Catholic.”
Kester Nucum, junior and president of University Catholic at Tennessee Tech, said he has met two of his best friends because of his participation in the program.
“We’re not merely friends who happen to be Catholic; rather, we place being Catholic and forming discipleship at the heart of our friendship. Both have challenged me in many ways that have allowed me to continually grow into the man and disciple God calls me to be,” Nucum said. “Through these friends – I dare say they are brothers – God has taught me how important fellowship and community are in the proposal of Jesus Christ and the formation of his disciples.
“UCat has helped me realize my calling as a disciple, as a minister, as a missionary, as a servant-leader in my everyday life, to use my brokenness, my talents, my personality, and my experiences to bring more people into a personal relationship with Christ,” he continued. “Through UCat, God has given me the grace to become more comfortable and courageous to share my faith with other people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, so that they may be drawn closer to Him.”
University Catholic focuses on four “distinct but interconnected dimensions of the Christian life,” including the spiritual, the human, the intellectual and the apostolic, according to the official University Catholic website.
The spiritual dimension includes Mass, adoration and retreats.
Several students from all the colleges and universities served by University Catholic recently participated in a leadership retreat at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Antioch. The retreat included three presentations, Mass, adoration, team-building exercises, personal reflection time and more.
“The weekend allowed me to really learn more about myself and the ministry God is calling me to do through University Catholic,” Nucum said. “The biggest takeaway I have learned from that retreat is really what it means to be a minister, to be a UCat officer, to be a disciple. That is, to ‘propose Jesus Christ and form his disciples’ through our everyday encounters, through personal invitation, through small gestures.
“The leadership retreat has made me realize that University Catholic is not simply a club or organization,” he added. “We are a ministry, and we must continually seek ways to both grow in numbers and grow in Christ.
“There are so many Catholic students at Tennessee Tech who could discover or rekindle their personal relationship with Jesus Christ through University Catholic, as well as many non-Catholic students who we are called to minister to draw them into fullness of truth,” he continued.
“The relationships we form through University Catholic should point toward the sacraments, toward prayer, toward intellectual and apostolic formation. Growing in faith should not be a solitary endeavor, for we were made to grow closer in communion with God and with each other.”
The human dimension includes hospitality, friendship, parties and other social gatherings. Several intramural sports teams are available for students to join including soccer, softball and volleyball.
The intellectual dimension includes groups for vocation discernment for men and women, Bible studies, an understanding of what Catholics believe and why, and more.
The apostolic dimension focuses on service, works of mercy and evangelization through groups like the Knights of Columbus, the March for Life pilgrimage, and mission trips.
Father John Sims Baker, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro and founder of University Catholic, said he’s happy about the branding of University Catholic amongst schools because there will be a commonality among the programs.
“Then people know, whatever campus they go to, they know what (University Catholic) means,” Father Baker said. “But it is also very important for every campus group to have its own identity, and its own mission on that campus because they’re the only people that can make Jesus Christ and His church present on that campus.”
As a ministry of the Diocese of Nashville, Bishop J. Mark Spalding said, he has high hopes for the expansion and branding of University Catholic.
“We have had a long tradition of University Catholic at Vanderbilt and Belmont, but the hope is that the same kind of involvement and strength of the program there expands to the other colleges and universities that are in the diocese,” Bishop Spalding said. “This united effort will hopefully allow everyone in our universities to participate.
“It is about utilizing the resources, utilizing the gifts of Father Gervan, the other parish priests in those nearby universities and colleges as well as the gifts that FOCUS (missionaries) bring to this ministry.”
Father Menezes said he simply hopes the mission of University Catholic continues to reach further and further.
“As a chaplain, I see miracles happen every day,” he said. “People who did not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, people who did not care for the Church or care for prayer, when they come and participate in our programs, encounter or are encountered by God, and they’re changed.”
For more about University Catholic, visit universitycatholic.org.