The power of small group celebrations
At small group Masses, college students learn the importance of praying for and with each other.
It was my last week at Marquette University before leaving for a semester to study abroad in France. I’d just finished my last two papers, and while my dorm room was not at all packed up for my departure the next day, I decided it was time to take a breather. At 9:15 p.m. I headed off with a few other girls from my floor to the Tuesday night Mass in the Joan of Arc Chapel.
Minutes after our arrival, the tiny chapel was bursting at its seams. The two dozen chairs around the outside edges of the walls had already been filled, and everyone else was sitting cross-legged on the floor.
We were lucky enough to get spots there, as well—those who came later would be left standing in the back, some of them outside the propped-open doors, participating in the Mass while shivering in the December chill.
The choir sang the opening song, and the “party,” as one friend likes to call this celebration, began.
Feeling very much as though I was saying goodbye to everything I knew (including my first language), I was praying particularly hard for courage throughout Mass. My breakthrough occurred during the prayers of the faithful. After the priest offered his prayers for those who would be traveling over the holidays, those taking finals, and those who were struggling during the holiday season, the congregation had the opportunity to share their own. One student offered a prayer that caught my attention.
“For all those who will be studying abroad next semester, that they will have a safe and successful experience, we pray.” As the rest of the church dutifully replied, “Lord, hear our prayer,” the sense of community I’d always felt from the Joan of Arc Masses sunk in even more. The prayers of the faithful had never particularly struck me before, perhaps because I assumed that no one actually thought of me while praying but instead were focused only on their own needs and concerns.
But when another student prayed for exactly what had been plaguing my mind, I realized I had the support of an entire close-knit congregation behind me. At my home parish in Chicago or even at the large Masses at Marquette, a study abroad experience wouldn’t have been on the radar of anyone. Here it seemed entirely natural.
Many colleges offer small Masses aimed primarily at their students, though of course other adults occasionally attend. This has become a way to reach college students on their own level.
Father Rick Malloy, S.J. at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, explains that typical parish Masses can be hard to navigate. Because such a diverse group of people is present, it can be difficult to reach everyone, but “when you get a crowd where everyone is between the ages of 18 and 22, you can really gear the homily toward just that audience. When they’re all involved in the same thing, it draws them in.”
Malloy says that college students go to Mass the way they do everything else: “Like the mall, you go when you want to go.” But he says that small college Masses offer a way to rattle cages and try to catch students’ attention. “If the priests and the ministers just listened to the students, they could have a worship experience that relates the truths of the faith to the experience of their lives.”
The Joan of Arc Masses at Marquette are just one example of a college Mass tailored to the students. The University of Notre Dame offers Masses in every residence hall twice each week. Boston College, in addition to several Sunday Masses, also has daily Masses at times ranging from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at chapels scattered throughout campus.
The variety of times and locations ensures that students will be able to find one that fits into their schedule, and with so many Masses there’s a greater chance that students will find an experience that reaches them—and keeps them coming back.
As Mass wound down that day, it was hard for me to leave the community behind. Our presider made his usual request for five volunteers to restore the chapel to its original setup, and that was followed by an explicit order to not walk home alone, not even in groups of two, but at least three people together.
Obediently, after a rousing closing hymn, I walked back to my residence hall with a group of 10 other students who lived in the same building.
Some I still didn’t know by name, but they’d all prayed for me. And finding a Mass where my concerns were shared with those around me was exactly what I needed.
This article was originally published in the July 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Volume 74, No. 7).