PROSPECT PARK — Whether it was Mass, reconciliation, or other campus ministry events, the frequent presence of Bishop Robert Brennan at The Ohio State University reaffirmed to senior Matthew Turek the high regard the Church holds for college Catholics.
“[Bishop Brennan’s presence] has been able to reinterpret what the priorities of the Church and [the Diocese of Columbus] are in that he was willing fully to invest that sort of time in young people,” Turek said. “He saw a long-term investment in that we’re the future of the church; we are the now of the Church, and he demonstrated that to me.”
From Bishop Brennan’s perspective, he recognized when he arrived as shepherd of the diocese in 2019 that OSU presented a unique opportunity for evangelization and mission work among one of the largest campus populations in the nation — over 65,000 students. He described the university as “a great mission field.”
With that in mind, he prioritized campus ministry early in his tenure. After only two weeks, he celebrated his first Mass at the St. Thomas More Newman Center — the Catholic campus ministry at OSU. Around the same time, he began establishing a presence with the university’s chapter of St. Paul’s Outreach.
That group, known as SPO, is a mission organization present on college campuses nationwide. At OSU, it has 55 students living in seven formation houses, 75 other students in formation, and about 400 other students involved with the organization, according to John Stevenson, the chapter’s mission supervisor.
The Newman Center sees as many as 1,100 students for Mass every weekend and hosts Bible study groups and weekly Catholic student nights that draw about 80-100 people, said Ed Nowak, the center’s director.
Bishop Brennan also worked to bring another nationwide evangelization organization, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), onto the Ohio State campus. FOCUS comes to a school only at the invitation of the local bishop. The group arrived last year.
Patrick Towles, a varsity Catholic missionary with the fellowship at OSU, said they have about 100 students currently involved, participating in mission events such as Bible studies.
Bishop Brennan said it’s important for church leaders to be involved in campus ministry because it’s a critical time for young adults.
“We need to be present on college campuses because, yes, there are a lot of people that drift away during that time, but there are a lot of people who have a religious awakening when they’re in college,” Bishop Brennan said. “There are some conversions, but there are also reversions, and I think we have to be there when people are looking to make that journey.”
Just as the Diocese of Columbus covers a number of colleges and diverse campus experiences, Bishop Brennan’s journey as Bishop-designate for the Diocese of Brooklyn will bring varied opportunities to evangelize collegians. The largest public university presence in the Diocese of Brooklyn is the City University of New York, with its Brooklyn College and Queens College campuses. Each enrolls 15,000-20,000 students, and each has campus ministry in the form of a Newman Catholic Center. A private, secular school, Long Island University, also has a Newman Catholic Center serving its downtown Brooklyn campus. (Its other campus is in Nassau County.)
The diocese is home to Catholic institutions including St. John’s University — Bishop Brennan’s alma mater — in Queens, and St. Francis College and St. Joseph’s College, both in Brooklyn.
Bishop Brennan said he has a lot to learn about college life in the Diocese of Brooklyn but is eager to get involved.
“For everything I know, I don’t know enough about campus life in the Diocese of Brooklyn, and I look forward to learning more about it,” Bishop Brennan said. “I know we have some Catholic colleges. I went to [Saint John’s University] myself, and I understand they have a pretty strong, pretty healthy, Catholic campus life, and I hope to be able to plug into that just as the local bishop.”
Back in Columbus, with Bishop Brennan’s impending departure, heads of the Newman Center, SPO, and FOCUS cite his presence as crucial to their growth and ministry.
“It certainly impressed [students] that someone as busy and important as [Bishop Brennan] really cares for them and their spiritual life and they’re worth taking the time for,” Nowak said.
Andrew Kebe, the regional director of SPO at Ohio State, pointed out that Bishop Brennan has participated in dinners with the different mission houses and come to the organization’s annual hog roast during welcome week, with 600 college students attending. He said Bishop Brennan’s commitment has shown students “they’re a part of the solution. They’re a part of the mission. And they’re critical [to the church].”
Kebe added that students have been encouraged by diocesan attentiveness to their present and future roles as Catholics, and “that’s huge.”
Towles added more: Bishop Brennan’s favorite pizza place in Columbus is known to be Plank’s Cafe and Pizzeria. After the news came out about Bishop Brennan’s appointment, Towles and some other students asked him if he would get pizza with them one more time before he heads for Brooklyn, to which he replied, “I would love nothing more.”