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Fr Innocent Odiaka MSP reflects on the process of rebuilding a Catholic society after the pandemic as part of his ministry to students of the University of Hertfordshire.

Rita was an MBA student from the University of Hertfordshire and a practising Catholic when we met after Mass in early December 2022. Our discussion about life in the University led her to share her feelings of disappointment with the Catholic Church. 

She was blunt in her assessment: ‘Father, I think the Catholic Church is not doing enough to support students as other churches do for their members. For example, whenever the school organises orientation programmes for freshers, you see many Christian churches and other faith groups with their stalls and posters to welcome their new members. There is usually no Catholic presence during such occasions, which makes new students feel abandoned and our members are attracted to other groups.’ She narrated how she never realised that many of her classmates were Catholics and never went to church because they didn't know where the church was located. 

She concluded by saying ‘the presence of the Catholic Church is not felt in the campus as other denominations and faith groups; if something is not done urgently, we stand to lose.’

The fertile ground

This assertion left me bewildered and the image of a sheep without a shepherd filled my imagination. I assured her that something would be done, though I had no plan since I was barely a month in the parish. 

Despite the fact that I had been informed by my predecessor that CathSoc UH (Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire) existed in the past, Covid brought its activities to a halt. In the midst of this confusion, I sought for solution in prayer, reflection, and engaging with the students for more information; in addition, I called my predecessor and the diocesan lead chaplain for guidance which was very helpful.

During Mass in December, I got an inspiration to ask the students to wait behind for a brief meeting after Mass. I introduced myself as their chaplain and explained the need to form a ‘family’ and scheduled a meeting for the last Sunday of January 2023 after the 6pm Mass. The response was positive, and impressive, as a larger number of them turned up than expected. 

This turn-up created the fertile ground to sow the seed of rebirth. Like sheep in need of a shepherd to guide them, I could feel their hunger for something deeper. We had a robust and honest discussion on the state of Catholic faith on the campus and practical ways to move forward. Thus, we arrived at the revival of CathSoc UH and the following three objectives were set forward, with activities to promote them and targets for the future.

Nurturing the Catholic faith among students

We organised to pray the Rosary every Friday at the University Chaplaincy (‘The Key’) during the Lenten season; a Lenten pilgrimage to St Albans Abbey was agreed; active participation during the 6pm students’ Mass on Sundays and other parish activities were encouraged. Additionally, a space was made for faith sharing/inspirational talk during our last Sunday of the month get-together party.

Promoting Catholic identity within the university environment

The decision to pray the Rosary prayer at ‘The Key’ was aimed at this objective; also, establishment of a fraternal relationship between the Catholic chaplain and the lead chaplain with the authorities of the university was encouraged; plans were made to produce hoodies with a Catholic message; and registration in the CathSoc via the student union societies’ platform was encouraged.

Building a supportive and multicultural family

We agreed that every last Sunday of the month will be the students’ get-together party; hence, students were encouraged to attend the 6pm Mass, after which, we would proceed to the hall for social activities such as playing games, dancing, interactions, sharing meals and a celebration of birthdays.

And God grants the increase

From January 2023 to date, CathSoc UH has experienced a rebirth with a steady increase in membership. Many have registered as Catholics on the students union platform which has created awareness in the campus. In addition, a fraternal relationship now exists between the lead chaplain and me, and between the CathSoc execs and the university authorities. 

Our last Sunday of the month get-together has provided a platform for fun and relaxation to reconnect among ourselves. During the freshers’ orientation programme in September, we made sure we got a space among other societies in the campus to welcome Catholic students which has boosted our membership. A welcome party was organised for the freshers, and our Area Bishop, Paul McAleenan, celebrated the Mass on 29th of October. It was a great celebration of our rebirth and identity which witnessed a great turnout of more than 200 students including some from other faiths and denominations. 

Furthermore, many students have journeyed from being spectators to participants in the parish by participating in functions like reading and serving during Mass, singing in the choir, cleaning the church and serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. In the month of October, Marian devotions were organised on Fridays which recorded a good success with some other parishioners in attendance. 

Undoubtedly, being supportive towards each other has contributed to a sense of membership and joy within the CathSoc family as some have been helpful in finding  jobs and accommodation for members in need. We are gradually building a family out of strangers, which formed the slogan for the association thus: CathSoc … From Strangers to Family. My experience with the rebirth of CathSoc UH can be summarised with the words of my Patron St Paul ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase’ (1 Cor 3:6). 

Photo: University of Hertfordshire Chaplaincy