Nearly a decade ago, leaders of the St. Mary’s Catholic Center next to the giant Texas A&M University campus began having an unusual problem: They had too many students coming to confession.

The priests were offering what was, in this day and age, a rather robust schedule for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, with 60 minutes or more on Wednesday nights and Saturdays before Mass.

Students were queuing up and waiting. So a young priest suggested offering daily confession, with two priests available for an hourplus, or one priest for two or three hours. But that wasn’t enough, either. Now this parish dedicated to campus ministry – with 50 fulltime and part-time staffers – offers confession at least 10 times every week, plus by appointment.

“We still have some lines, and sometimes – most days, even – our priests don’t have time to hear all the confessions,” said Marcel LeJeune, the parish’s assistant campus ministry director. “The priests don’t have time to chat. … It seems that whenever we offer more opportunities for confession, we have more people show up.”

Parish leaders know all about modern campus trends with alcohol, pornography and “hooking up.” They know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average age at which young Americans lose their virginity is 17 and that, between ages 20 and 24, 86 percent of males and 88 percent of females are sexually active, to varying degrees.

But the statistic LeJeune stresses is that nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23. In other words, he thinks that if Catholics are serious about influencing young people before they join the growing ranks of the so-called “Nones” – the religiously unaffiliated – they must invest more time and resources into campus ministries.

Texas A&M has more than 58,000 students and 25 percent of them, to one degree or another, are Catholics. Do the math. That’s a big parish.

“It’s a shame that only 25 to 30 percent of our secular campuses nationwide have Catholic campus ministries of any kind,” said LeJeune. “There may be a parish somewhere nearby where some kids are going to Mass, but there’s nobody there who is reaching out to college students day after day. … “That constant one-onone work, and small groups, are crucial. You have to have people who are getting their hands dirty by being involved in the real lives of students. Many people are scared to do that.”

Evangelical Protestant ministries have for decades demonstrated that college is a prime time to reach young people who are confused, hurting or simply open to new ideas, noted LeJeune. This is also when Catholics need to reach those who are straying before they make permanent exits from the church.

“We have seen plenty of people return to the sacramental life of the church late in their lives, as adults of all ages,” he said. “But the simple fact is that you are much more likely to see this happen in college because this is a time when students are searching and open to making changes in their lives.”

Obviously, students can make changes that are good or bad, from the church’s viewpoint, he said. Many dive into alcohol and sex – creating trends that have made headlines – while others worship the less controversial gods of success and money.

In other words, students have solid reasons to go to confession. However, a 2008 poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 87 percent of self-identified American Catholics go to confession once a year or less, with 45 percent admitting that they “never” go.

While the St. Mary’s team is glad to see students lining up for confession, that cannot be the first goal, stressed LeJeune.

“For too long, Catholics have been guilty of preaching the church rather than preaching Jesus,” he said. “Now, we preach Catholic stuff here, and doctrine matters. But if we don’t stir up a desire to know God, then we’re not doing Job 1. …

“You can’t just keep talking about what’s wrong with people and expect them to listen. … Once students are driven to know God, that’s when they will get interested in confession and forgiveness and going deeper.”

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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