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Meet the students flying the flag for Faith at Glasgow University

The University of Glasgow Catholic Association, based in Turnbull Hall, is a thriving community and a place of growth for many young Catholics. Joanna Magoufakis speaks to four students for whom action and formation go hand in hand.

Jamie McGowan, a 21-year-old Law student at Glasgow University and chairman of the university’s cell of the Knights of St Columba, expresses the importance of embracing the Catholic life like this.

“In a world full of ideology and philosophical conflict, young people are searching for a purpose. Modern millennials are inquisitive, and the Church has the answers to the questions they pose in their hearts. Lucky for them, our Faith is the greatest treasure that can be known to the human person.”

Four years ago, Fr Ross Campbell, the University chaplain, approached Jamie and a few other students and asked them if they wanted to start a student cell of the Knights of St. Columba. After some hesitation, they accepted and the cell has been flourishing ever since.

Jamie explains how fraternity, one of the three principles of the Knights, is aiding young men tremendously. “The Church today needs an organisation of Catholic men that can encourage each other to grow in virtue and form each other in the spiritual life.”

 

Fraternity and formation

Jamie highlights that the Knights have historic roots as a solidarity organisation and believes the Order has the same function today, but with a difference.

“The Knights were founded in 1919 at a time when Catholics faced an economic crisis: times were hard but the Faith was strong. Now, it’s the reverse: the social status of Catholics has improved significantly, yet the Church is now in a spiritual crisis.

“Young men are not taught in the Faith, they aren’t formed in the spiritual life, they don’t have a source of fraternity. Following the example of St. Columba, I think the Knights is a remedy for that.”

The Knights are built on three principles: fraternity, charity and unity. The first principle emphasises the brotherly bond and support they give each other in the spiritual life. Charity emphasises the mission of the organisation in terms of service. Like the other students I have spoken to, the Knights have as a major part of their mission to support the pro-life cause. They do so primarily by helping out the Sisters of the Gospel of Life with manual labour.

 

Pro-life support

“Our big apostolate, aside from assisting the hierarchy, is supporting the pro-life movement,” Jamie said. “We do everything we can to assist the sisters. We go down and build cots and prams and do manual work for them.”

Their mission, however, also extends to helping the poor, raising funds for good causes and supporting charities such as SCIAF.

As a fraternity, they place a lot of emphasis on supporting the hierarchy of the church. Taking the monastic example of St Columba into the world, they pray the divine office together, altar-serving and assisting the clergy as and when required.

This is a good way for men to discern their vocation. The Knights have already got a few men in seminary, with many others looking to serve the Church in married and professional life.

 

Church unity

The third principle, unity, means unity with the Church, unity in the Church and the promotion of Catholic social teaching.

Jamie says: “We need to study and understand our Faith properly. Then we can bring the fruits of that study to the world. But none of that matters unless we cherish the life of prayer first.”

The second student I spoke to is 21-year-old Lynnette Mutisya. She is in her fourth year at university studying molecular biology. She is also the president of the university’s Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Their work includes going on tea runs and talking to the homeless.

Lynnette says: “We give homeless people tea and if they need scarves or gloves we give them that as well. We have a chat with them and we do this on a regular basis.”

 

Mercy and service

The group places a lot of emphasis on corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry. For Christmas, the Society of St Vincent de Paul takes part in the shoebox appeal. “We collect goods like toiletries, stationery and toys and hand them in to collection centres and we help sort them out as well,” she says.

The SSVP group needs more members so they try to recruit people during the Freshers Fayre. They also do fundraisers to support their work and talk to people about the initiatives of the society.

“The reason I chose St Vincent de Paul is because they simply ask that you use your gifts and go out and listen to people. Sometimes small gestures have a great impact. God has given us gifts and talents to help others. As a student I think that’s a great thing.”

 

SSVP

Volunteering with St Vincent de Paul has been important for Lynette’s spiritual formation.

She says: “It has shaped the way I reason and interact with people. It has given me a lot of hope and has helped me see the beauty in my struggles and in others.”

This has led to an increased awareness for her of the suffering that we all witness every single day on the streets of Glasgow.

“Every day we see poverty all around us and it can be overwhelming in the sense that it makes you ask yourself, what can I do, can I really help this person? Volunteering is a great way to give back to the community. As a student I’m financially dependent on my family but there are still little things I can do.”

 

Legion of Mary

My third interviewee is Giuseppe Celico, a 23-year-old PhD student studying Milanese Medieval History. He is the president of the university’s Praesidium of the Legion of Mary.

He says: “We do spiritual works of mercy, which means evangelisation. We have an apostolic mission. In our University Praesidium we go to Kelvingrove Park, the Botanics or we stand in front of the library. We approach people and we talk to them about their faith or in some cases lack of faith. Our job is to plant seeds and spend time with people.”

Becoming a member of the Legion proved beneficial for him.

“Joining the legion was a revolutionary thing for me. It helped me get out of my comfort zone and think about my Faith. Sometimes conversations lead to debates but sometimes something good comes out of it. It is always interesting to hear other people’s views, especially if they come from a different religious background.”

 

Sharing the Faith

The Legion often brings a statue of Mary with them when they stand outside the university library. They also hand out leaflets for the chaplaincy and miraculous medals.

I was curious to know whether they had ever experienced any hostility when approaching people on the streets.

“We normally approach people by saying: ‘We are from the Catholic Chaplaincy, would you like to have a chat?’ We are not aggressive in our communication so we haven’t experienced any outright hostility. Some people have been a bit standoffish but nothing too serious,” says Giuseppe.

“I’ve been doing this for almost four years now and each time I do it I learn how to approach people better. We always go out in twos so I can learn from my partner and they from me.”

The Legion of Mary was founded in Ireland in 1921, a very divided country at the time, and Giuseppe believes that courage and fearlessness are essential when going out to do Mission work. All members of the Legion that go out to talk to people need to be registered and have a PVG certificate.

 

Growing in Faith

Rohan Bald is a 22-year-old fourth year student in medicine and a recent convert to Catholicism. In addition to being a member of the Legion of Mary, he is also a member of the Knights of St Columba.

“I love being involved in groups that help me grow in my Faith and have a positive impact on our society,” he says.

This exuberant and ambitious young man is passionate about mission. “I enjoy mission and talking to people. I’ve got a real zeal and drive because I have seen the despair without God and the hope with,” he says.

He is hoping to bring this zeal to talking to people about Catholicism.

“What I would like to achieve this year is to break down the barriers that exist,” he says. “I think people have the wrong idea about what the Catholic Church is and I would like to overcome this misunderstanding.”

 

Unity

He adds: “There is so much more that unites us than divides us and dialogue is the only way to bring that across”.

When our four students were asked about their everyday challenges as practising Catholics they all agreed that people often want to get answers from them on topics that are considered controversial for casual conversation.

Young Catholic students often get questioned about their views on gay rights, pro-life, chastity and contraception.

Sometimes answering these questions or discussing them in a civilised manner with their peers can help bring clarification to matters that Rohan described as a form of prejudice.

“If you’re openly Catholic it’s hard to know where you stand with people sometimes, as it seems that most people have an issue with the ethical views that the Church upholds,” he says.

When asked about their feelings on the decreasing numbers in the Church and the state of Catholicism in Scotland today, they all had a different view on the situation.

 

Hope for the future

Lynnette is not too worried about decreasing numbers. She believes that young people will naturally be drawn to the Church.

“I really feel reverence when I am in church. There’s something special about it that speaks for itself.

“I feel that the Church always goes through periods of struggle, but in the chaplaincy you see a lot of people who’ve become converts from different denominations or atheism. That gives me hope for the Church and our generation.”

She adds: “I think what really helped me grow in my faith is going to the chaplaincy and seeing so many young people so happy and full of the Spirit from all walks of life and all these different groups you can go to. It had a big impact on me.”

 

Scottish Church

Giuseppe, who is originally from Italy, sees a lot of positive things in the Catholic Church in Scotland.

“My experience of the Catholic Church here is positive. I think we’ve got a wonderful chaplaincy, and Fr Ross Campbell is very active and encouraging.”

He continues: “In Italy, for some reason, I wasn’t able to get involved in the parish life, and when I went to Switzerland for a while, there was nothing there at all. Therefore, I think having an active chaplaincy is very helpful.”

Despite this, he feels that more spiritual formation would be very beneficial.

“Children need proper catechesis and I think the family plays an essential role in this. Young parents and young people generally need to be given the opportunity to come together and develop their spiritual life. A healthy prayer life at home and leading by example is very important,” he says.

 

Church decline

Jamie thinks that the issue of declining church attendance is deeper than it may first appear.

“We’ve lapsed in Scotland. Many people today are culturally Catholic but have no real knowledge about the Catholic Faith. Our chaplaincy is doing important work because it provides young people with an environment that can help them grow in love of the Lord.”

He adds: “With the domination of cultural Catholicism, we have lost touch with our mission to Scotland a bit. Many young people are not taught the Faith at home and sometimes even the Church is trying too hard to be relatable.

“As such, I think more emphasis needs to be put on formation of those already in the Church. In order to be living examples of the gospel, we have to nurture a solid life of prayer and study, so that we can adequately preach the truth to those who we encounter in our daily lives.”

 

Improving schools

He believes that good formation can also improve Catholic schools. “Ideally, you would like your teachers to be able to answer the important questions of life in accordance with the teachings of the Church, rather than bending on modern ideologies,” says Jamie.

Rohan agrees that spiritual formation is important especially in our times where modern ideologies are what young people are exposed to.

“I think it requires a lot of strength and courage to live the Catholic life. I like how Chesterton put it when he said that a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

He adds: “It’s important to tell the Truth, share it and never water it down.”

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