During my time as an undergraduate student at Loyola University Maryland, I was introduced to the inimitable Rainer Maria Rilke when a homilist cited his well-known quote regarding grappling with questions: “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Catholic institutions of higher education pull no punches!)
All of us in positions of leadership are continually faced with a barrage of questions. The answers to some of those questions roll immediately off the tongue, while others require a bit more “living-into.” This is an experience commensurate with that of the young adults in our charge, populating college and university campuses and wrestling their way through the questions that are hallmarks of this stage of life.
As the National Coordinator of ESTEEM, a leadership formation program for young Catholic adults, I live into one question more than any other: What is the vocation of ESTEEM? The supplemental question then arises: Why should it exist among the many strong resources available to campus ministries?
Bridging the Gap
To me, the mission of forming young leaders to be engaged, active contributors to the life of the Church is about as exciting and purposeful as it can get. As an alumna of a Catholic university, my collegiate experience was infused with the sense that the life of faith is rich, awe-inspiring, and meant to be engaged with joyfully at every stage of life. Among the many noble purposes of Catholic higher education is to ensure that students are well-formed to live out the fullness of their vocations, to glorify God in whatever way is most fitting for their realities, and to ensure that the world moves one step closer to the Kingdom of God. To me, this dovetails neatly with ESTEEM’s service to young leaders for over a decade.
Certainly, the lived reality that students are facing today is rife with unique challenges, requiring them to be nimble, adaptive, and resilient. Thankfully, Catholic colleges and universities have generally risen to the occasion, although one challenge remains evergreen: The transition from college campus ministry to life post-graduation continues to be a struggle for so many, regardless of on-campus engagement or opportunities. How, we ask ourselves, can our colleges and universities better equip and prepare young adults for that major transitional moment? ESTEEM endeavors to offer a path: a deepened engagement with the richness of the Catholic faith, a process of formation that honors each person’s baptismal gifts and responsibility, and development of “ecclesial confidence,” so as to empower young people to enter faith communities with the same confidence inspired in them by their educational journey on campus.
However, the work of ESTEEM does not stop when the gap between campus and post-grad life is bridged. Concurrently, we are aware that young people have myriad gifts in predominantly secular spheres. Graduates of Catholic colleges and universities, regardless of major, go forth to be leaders in every sector. While of course we desire for young people to “bloom where they are planted,” we also desire for them to utilize their gifts in service to the mission of the Church. To cultivate a sense of leadership grounded in faith ensures that faith continues to play a role in the lives of young people, and provides fertile ground for them to proffer their gifts in service to their faith communities. Fostering that sense of ongoing commitment and engagement is a gift that can pay dividends, not only for parishes but for colleges and universities as well.
Many Ways of Being
Part of ESTEEM’s unique sustainability is that its potential is maximized when it is fully enculturated into the life of a campus ministry, rather than rigidly implemented as a “program-in-a-box.” That requires creativity and flexibility – hallmarks of the Catholic imagination as manifested on Catholic college and university campuses. Of the many markers of hope that our increase in ESTEEM sites has brought, one especially noteworthy is the addition of two Catholic universities joining us this academic year: Niagara University in New York, and Saint Thomas University in Florida.
Two extraordinary institutions, located at opposite ends of the East Coast, with distinct histories and missions, have both discerned that ESTEEM is a tool best-suited for their commitment to forming leaders on their campuses. In western New York, Niagara University will be implementing ESTEEM as integrated into the fabric of their campus ministry program, through the clear-eyed vision of their vice president for mission integration and the intrepid leadership of their director of campus ministry. In southern Florida, Saint Thomas University will be using ESTEEM’s curriculum as the foundation for their inaugural Catholic Leadership Household living-learning community, through the enthusiasm and engagement of their vice president for mission and his campus ministry team. Both sites demonstrate the “energy, audacity, and creativity” to which Pope Francis refers in his apostolic exhortation to young people and the whole people of God, Christus Vivit (178). What a gift these Catholic universities are to our ESTEEM network, as they bring their unique perspectives and implementations.
Witnesses like these, of the ingenuity of ESTEEM sites and the ongoing engagement of ESTEEM alumni, are the beacons of hope that assure us that there are paths of ever-stronger accompaniment available for college and university campus ministry. Many questions surround the work of those who accompany young adults, especially on college and university campuses. Many questions cloud our vision for how the life of faith can be lived authentically, how servant-leadership can be nurtured, and the role that Catholic colleges and universities can play in it all. While there are no hard-and-fast answers or silver bullets to the questions we have, ESTEEM is one way – a formative, intentional, quality way – as Rilke suggests, to live into the answers.
Nicole M. Perone is the National Coordinator of ESTEEM.