Pastoral Care in Catholic Universities


Middle to right. Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, Prefect of the Congregation, Angelo Vincenso Zani, Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Dr. Stephanie Russell, AJCU's Vice President, and all the participants.


EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked  Dr. Stephanie Russell, AJCU's Vice President and Consultant for Mission Integration, to share a short report about the seminar taking place in the Vatican.


On December 3-4, 2018 the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education convened an International Seminar on University Pastoral Care, attended by representatives of Catholic higher education institutions, programs, and organizations from around the world.  

The meeting was hosted by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, Prefect of the Congregation, and Archbishop Angelo Vincenso Zani, Secretary. Also on the core team was Mons. Guy-Réal Thivierge, formerly head of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, and now Secretary General of the Vatican’s Gravissimum Educationis Foundation.

The 20 delegates from 5 continents reflected diverse forms of connection to Catholic higher education. The majority of them head pastoral programs at Catholic colleges within state-run universities. Some are providing non-degree, post-secondary education in developing countries, where governmental and cultural opposition to their work poses significant challenges. A relatively small number lead campus ministry and/or mission efforts in Catholic colleges and universities.  Finally, four individuals work in Catholic higher education networks, namely:

  • the higher education offices of CELAM (i.e., the Latin American Bishops), and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
  • IAJU (represented by Stephanie Russell), and
  • the Legionaries of Christ.

Prior to the meeting, the organizers described their hopes for the seminar as “discussions of experiences and sharing of approaches on campus ministry in diverse university contexts.”  Each of the delegates was asked to prepare a written report responding to a series of very general questions:

  1. In your specific pastoral context, which are the urgent priorities?
  2. In this context, what is your role and what are your concrete commitments?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats that you encounter?
  4. What would you suggest to this Congregation to improve its service?

As the reports were reviewed in the plenary sessions, however, it became clear that a true examination of university pastoral care would push well beyond the bounds of campus ministry.   The concerns of delegates ranged from Mass attendance among undergraduates to the use of artificial intelligence in Catholic contexts.  Further, most delegates were not serving in Catholic institutions, but were, instead part of a Catholic presence (i.e., school, college, missionary team, etc.) in a larger, secular university context.  Levels of institutional support and access varied, and in some cases there was great resistance by the local university administration or government to Catholic education and activities. 

Eventually, the discussions moved beyond purely sacramental and ministerial definitions of pastoral care, to encompass the mission of the schools, programs, and networks.  There was general consensus that the Church’s pastoral care for universities must include issues such as faculty formation, the university’s role as a change agent for the common good, the promotion of civil discourse and dialogue, and fostering a sense of vocation in our students.  A number international Jesuit college/university projects were shared during these discussions, and were well received by the delegates.

Going forward, a subset of seminar participants will be re-gathered to draft a document that reflects this broader understanding of University Pastoral Care, in hopes that it will be appended to the report of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.  Whether the IAJU will be involved in the next phase of the project remains to be seen, but the IAJU network will certainly benefit from the Congregation’s efforts.