In the fall of 2000, I landed on the campus of Virginia Tech, as a bright eyed, bushy tailed freshman. Now growing up, I had gone to Catholic primary school, and then been involved with Religious Education Classes and Youth Group, throughout high school. Church had always been a part of my life. However, during my initial transition into college and the adult world, Church became a missing element in life. I used a long list of excuses, “I don’t know anyone.” “I don’t know the Mass times.” “I don’t know where Mass is being held while the chapel is being renovated.” Our home parish at the time, was on the outer edges of the College of William and Mary, and their CCM was attached to our parish, and at the same time my mom the time was the Coordinator of Religious Education. I had the unique experience of having not only my parents, but the campus minister and chaplain from William and Mary all telling me that I just HAD to go to Newman; that it was the best place as far as campus ministry. I rebelled. I was five hours and almost 300 miles away, they couldn’t make me; how would they know if I went or not?
During the first week, I attended the clubs fair. My real motivation behind going was to see if Newman had a table. They did. Being a person who loves retreats, I signed up for their freshman retreat. However, I didn’t sign up with the idea that I really wanted to go on the retreat, instead, I signed up thinking that I would be just another name on a list. Boy was I wrong. Over the next few weeks, I received several emails from a young man, who was part of the retreat team. I didn’t think much of it, until one afternoon, when I was studying in my room, and there was a knock at my door. It was the young man who had been emailing with me. He brought the forms I needed to sign to go on the retreat and we talked for a few minutes. I was still skeptical about Newman, but now they knew where I lived. I even tried to get out of going on the retreat at the very last minute, however, I couldn’t get ahold of anyone to cancel. So, I ended up going on the retreat and meeting several people, all of whom were freshman students and have since become some of my closest friends. After returning to campus, my new-found friends and I would attend Mass together and participate in other activities, each of us finding our niche.
Newman was more than a place. Newman was more than a house. Newman was more than just a club or organization. Newman was our home away from home, and Newman was our family. It was a comforting place to go when the world became too much, and we needed to make sense of it. September 11, 2001 was one of those days. Many of the students were from the Washington, DC metro area and had parents and siblings who worked in Washington or at the Pentagon. We gathered together to cry, to pray, and to be with each other while students waited for news, and we tried to make sense of the world. By the end of the day, there wasn’t an empty space in the house, we covered over three floors of the house including all the stairs. But we were there, we were together, and it was how we began to find comfort and heal.
It is this community that also brought me much comfort and solace when my mom died suddenly at the end of fall semester of my sophomore year. Throughout the week that followed my friends at Newman offered prayers and condolences and chocolate chip cookies and a willingness to drive me the five hours home. I left on Friday, just as I had planned for Thanksgiving break. My mom died on Sunday. On Monday at her funeral, many of my friends from Newman were there, including our chaplain, who concelebrated her funeral mass. It was this outpouring of unconditional love that reminded me what Church and Faith was all about.
My last and largest stepping stone wouldn’t come for a few more years. In the spring of 2007, I was a permanent community member for the Newman Community at Virginia Tech, working for the university after graduation. The campus minister was fresh out of graduate school and had no experience and our chaplain was returning to an alcohol treatment facility for the second time; we were a vulnerable community. The discombobulation and chaos was seen during a disastrous Easter Vigil Mass. It was during this mass, that I felt like I was holding together with duct tape, where I truly got my call to ministry. I was tired, tried, frustrated and my voice kept saying out loud, “I quit!” The voice in my heart though was saying, “There is no place that I’d rather be, and nothing else that I’d rather be doing.” By the time that Mass ended, I knew that I was supposed to be a campus minister. Eight days later, humanity would test my answer to God’s call.
It was a cold, Monday morning. I don’t remember much about my drive to work except that I was annoyed at having to work an early shift, covering for colleague who was on vacation, and that it was cold. I arrived at work and began the opening procedures. By the time my colleagues and boss arrived at work, 30 minutes after I did, everyone was a buzz. “There’s a gunman lose on campus!” By the end of the day, thirty three people, students and faculty, including the shooter himself were dead; the single worst campus shooting in history. Over the next week, I ended up taking on the role of campus minister. The students knew me, and trusted me; I was the liaison between them and the campus ministers from other schools, who in turn became the liaison between our campus community and the church community at large. I spent nights at the house with students who were afraid to return to their residence hall rooms and who couldn’t sleep. I spent my afternoons and evenings making sure that the Newman house continued to run, and that the students were cared for, as they tried to make sense of this tragedy.
It seems that when I have experienced life changing events, and that my faith should be shaken to its core, is when I find most solace and comfort and it becomes even stronger. I love every minute of working with my students, whether we are serving those in need or celebrating Mass together. There really is nowhere else I’d rather be, and nothing else that I’d rather be doing.
- Caitlin Czeh, Campus Minister