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The Catholic New World
Catholic universities reach out to other faiths

Kristin Peterson

In a diverse society, Catholic colleges and universities now attract more than just Catholic students. Catholic universities provide support for students from different religious traditions and opportunities for all students to engage in interfaith dialogue.

"Rooted in our Catholic tradition, we have a responsibility and a gift to reach out to our neighbors of other faiths," explained Javier Orozco, the associate director of religious diversity at DePaul University. He said this interfaith dialogue is especially important in a university atmosphere.

Catholic universities provide practical support for students of other faiths. Usually, the campus ministry offices will offer pastoral support for faith groups on campus, space for students to worship and pray and assistance with planning events.

At DePaul University, the student leaders of different faith groups support each other through the newly created Interfaith Council, which meets several times a year. The students share serious conversations about faith but they also talk about lighter subjects. Orozco said one recent question for discussion was "How do we have fun together?" As a result of this meeting, the students held an inter-faith ice cream social.

"Interfaith is not just an intellectual discourse," Orozco said. "In an academic setting it is about sharing our lives, learning, and an opportunity to work together in social justice."

Catholic universities also provide a respectful atmosphere for those of other faith traditions. Rachel Hart, a chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, said one Muslim student said she chose to come to a Catholic school because of the respect for prayer. "She thought that she could live as a good Muslim at a Catholic university," Hart said.

At Loyola the university ministry offices and the different prayer rooms, including Hindu, Hillel, and Muslim rooms, are all located on the second floor of the Mundelein Center. "The fact that we are housed together allows such rich relationships to develop," Hart said.

Similarly, at Saint Xavier University, the McDonough Chapel is open to students of all faiths, and the reconciliation room is used for Muslim prayer. Sometimes, Muslim prayer and Catholic Mass will be going on simultaneously, right next door to each other.

This past November, Saint Xavier hosted a conference on women in Islam. Mercy Sister Susan Sanders, vice president for University Mission and Heritage at Saint Xavier, developed the event. The conference addressed the needs of women and children, and it was a way to welcome students from different backgrounds.

"If you are going to attract students to a university, you want to be a university that is responsive to all students," Sanders said.

Sanders said the majority of students at Saint Xavier are Catholic, but the school still offers support to students of other faiths. "We try to be as Catholic as we possibly can be to serve our Catholic students and at the same time be hospitable to the students of other faiths," Sanders said.

Orozco agrees that at DePaul, the university ministry staff tries to provide support to all students.

"This doesn't mean that we lessen the support of any of the members," he said. "We provide the balance, the space where each person is provided the dignity and respect that they need."

An important part of religious diversity is the chance for interfaith dialogue. Loyola hosted an interfaith student event Feb. 15 where a panel of students from different religions and cultures shared their experiences. The event was co-sponsored by the Niagara Foundation, a Turkish Muslim organization that promotes interfaith dialogue through the approach of friendship.

On the panel was a Catholic student, a Jesuit scholastic preparing for priesthood, a Hindu student, a Muslim student from Senegal, a non-denominational Christian, and a Jewish student.

Hart said many of the panelists expressed the idea of "feeling at home at Loyola" despite coming from different religions. "In this environment, students feel comfortable to question, to challenge one another," she said. A lot of the students feel "gratitude for such diversity after growing up in a place where there isn't a lot of diversity."

Hart emphasized how important it is for college students to be exposed to diversity in college, in order to prepare them for the real world, where not everyone is Catholic.

"A lot of times when we come in contact with other faiths we grow in our own," Hart said.


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