Bringing Christ to the college campus

DANBURY—One Sunday when Henry Aquino was 22, he went to Mass in his hometown in Rhode Island and looked out at the congregation…and saw “a sea of gray hair.”

“There wasn’t one young person at all, and I asked myself, ‘Where’s my generation?’” he recalled. “Right then, the drive to do something radical was planted in my head.” His mission became clear. He wanted to bring young people to Christ. He prayed for the grace to be led in the right direction, and his prayer was answered.

Four years later, Henry is the Campus Minister at the Newman Center for Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, which is a Catholic campus ministry supported through the Annual Catholic Appeal of the Diocese of Bridgeport. Founded on Gospel values, the community lives its mission through prayer, study, socialization and outreach to the poor in the spirit of St. John Henry Newman, who understood the importance of the university in the development of students.

Henry works with Father Augustine Nguyen, chaplain, and Mariana Martins, office manager, at the Center, a three-story house owned by the diocese and located behind Litchfield and Newbury Hall.

“The three of us are driving the show, and there has been a lot of adjusting because of the spike in COVID-19 cases in Danbury, but we are slowly starting to get more and more students,” he said.

Among the challenges they face is lack of faith formation in young people, who are unfamiliar with the Church’s teachings. At the same time, those who adhere to the teachings often encounter adversity in a secular college environment and can feel isolated.

“When young people don’t have good faith formation, they will believe what the media, their friends or their professors say on issues like abortion and same-sex attraction,” Henry said. “The voices of the world are very loud and strong, so young people think, ‘If that’s what everyone is saying, I guess it’s true.’ And if they do speak up for their faith, they can lose their friends or feel isolated.”

Because of COVID-19, the semester got off to a slow start at the Center; however, it has been seeing up to 20 students in recent weeks.

“Those who are here really want to be here, and it’s awesome to walk with them and encourage them,” he said.

The Center routinely schedules game nights, Bible study, prayer groups, Eucharistic adoration, speakers and Newman dinners, which provide free home-cooked meals for students.

The Newman Club also sponsors food drives for the local food pantry and mission trips, although one recently planned to Honduras was cancelled because of COVID.

“Our goal is to bring young people to Christ and have them become lifelong Catholic disciples so that this is not something they experience just once,” he said.

Henry, who is pursuing a degree in business management through the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, was invited to join the Center staff by Father Augustine, who knew him through his involvement with Focus Missionaries—the Fellowship of Catholic University Students—an organization that brings the Gospel to students through collegiate outreach. For five years, Henry served in FOCUS, and his last assignment was in Danbury, where he was the team director of three missionaries.

His parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s, have a strong Catholic faith, and he was active in youth ministry at St. Patrick Church in Providence. But when he came to Connecticut to study music and sound recording at the University of New Haven, he went through a bit of culture shock.

“It was a very lonesome year,” he recalls. “My parish had a great youth ministry, and then I went to a college where there weren’t any missionaries or a Newman experience. Looking back, it was one of the reasons I have for doing this. As campus minister, I can reach out to students who are feeling the same thing and let them know they have a place where they can experience their faith without feeling lonely or trapped.”

Father Augustine, who has been assigned to the center since 2019, says, “This is a spiritual house for Catholic students, but we also welcome different faiths. When they come here, they can study, pray and do Bible study. I want the house to be a friendly environment by offering Mass and prayer services.”

Father also is advisor to the Newman Club, which is part of the Western Connecticut’s student government association.

“To have a house like this is important because a lot of students are turning away from their faith,” he said. “Students who come here might feel uncomfortable going to confession and Mass at their home parish, but here we can communicate and talk with them. It’s a great opportunity to evangelize and bring them back to the faith. Some of them have not received the sacraments since they were confirmed, but now they’re returning. I feel the Holy Spirit is at work here.”

Through his efforts, the Center’s chapel has been expanded, allowing more students to attend Mass.

“I’ve fixed up the Newman Center so it looks more welcoming, like a home away from home,” Father said. “I have other projects I’d like to do, including new carpeting and repainting the inside. I also want to have more retreats and invite guest speakers to discuss issues important to teenagers and young adults.”

(Father Augustine says those who would like to contribute to the work of the Newman Center can send a donation to The Newman Center, 7 Eighth Avenue, Danbury, CT 06810.)

“It’s challenging to bring young people back to Mass and return to a life of faith,” he said. “But I trust myself to the Lord and let him use me as his instrument…and it’s working.”

Born in Vietnam, he came to the United States as a boy and after college, he had jobs as electrical technician and health technologist. One time when he was visiting his sisters, he met Father Christopher Walsh, then vocation director for the diocese, who invited him to St. John Fisher Seminary to discern his vocation. He was ordained in 2012.

Mariana Martins, a graduate of Western Connecticut, is office manager of the Center and past president of the Newman Club. She grew up in a devout Portuguese family but admits that she was lax in practicing her faith when she first got to college. The Focus Missionaries invited her to the Center, where she started attending Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. Eventually, she began a women’s Bible study group.

“I wanted to help women navigate the college experience in a way they could live out a Christian lifestyle,” she said. “Sometimes it’s really difficult to maintain your faith in a secular university, where a lot of the focus is on partying and doing things that are worldly.”

Church teachings often provoke debate on campus, particularly when they’re brought up in class among students who are not receptive to Catholic positions on social issues.

“They’re not really open to hearing what we have to say,” she said.

She and her friend have had to defend their Catholic faith several times.

“I was in a very liberal major so it could be difficult,” she said. “My friend in the social work department always stood up for what she believed in. If not us, who is going to do it? We have to speak out because it might be the only opportunity for students and faculty to hear our side.”

A frequent criticism involves the sex abuse crisis. One time when her classmates insisted the Church did nothing about the abuse, Mariana and her friend challenged them.

“We told them a lot is being done to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen,” she said. “We told them about the lists of abusers and the report the diocese released. We acknowledged it happened and said the victims have to be supported, but for them to say the Church did nothing is incorrect.”

She said the Center is vital for Catholic students in a secular university and essential to reach others who are misinformed about the faith.

“If we want young people to stay in the Church, we have to give them support,” she said. “I’m thankful for what the Center does and for the diocese’s help as well.”

Elizabeth Vas, the Newman Club President, is a junior psychology major, who spent her first year at Franciscan University of Steubenville. The third of four children, she comes from a devout Catholic family that is active in Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Danbury.

“Faith has always been part of my life, and going to public schools forced me to make the faith my own,” she said. “I had to make a conscious choice about whether I actually believed what the Church teaches.”

Catholics who practice their faith will inevitably confront challenges in a university setting, she says. That is why the Newman Center is so important.

“It’s a place where I can go and be surrounded by people who support me, especially if I’m having a rough day,” she said. “It’s not uncommon in the psychology field to have faith be taken out of the science. But I can go to the Newman Center and talk to someone, and they’ll understand. All I have to do is say, ‘My day is horrible and this happened,’ and they’ll talk to me for a few minutes and say, ‘Let’s go speak with Jesus and pray about it.’ Then, we’ll go into the chapel and sit in front of the tabernacle.” Jesus is always there for young disciples who aren’t afraid to stand up for him.

Elizabeth says if you’re not moving forward in your faith, you’ll go backward.

“College students are leaving the Church in big numbers, so to have the Newman Center, where we can go and have people pushing us forward in our faith, is the key to not losing it.”