Offering students a faith perspective

Mags Gargan meets Catherine Black, a lay chaplain in NUI Maynooth

Life has almost come full circle for Catherine Black, the first female lay chaplain to work in her own Alma Mater in NUI Maynooth.

Originally from Strabane, Co. Tyrone, Catherine always enjoyed going to weekly Mass, attending youth groups and retreats, and being part of the parish community.

She went through a few different career changes, including a few years living in Germany teaching English, before she explored the notion of vocation and decided to learn more about her faith. She applied to St Patrick’s College Maynooth in 2002 to start a Bachelor in Theology and then went on to do a Masters of Pastoral Theology.

Catherine ended up doing her work placement in the NUI Maynooth chaplaincy and she says “this really grounded my desire to work in third level chaplaincy, but I had to wait a while before it came through but the seed was planted.”

Initially after graduation Catherine got a job working for the De La Salle Retreat Centre in Downpatrick, Co. Down but the strain of travelling up and down to Dublin while dating her now husband, Cathal, led her to accept a job in the L’Arche Community in Dublin and move down to the capital in 2008.

“I spent three and a half very happy years with the L’Arche Community, going over to Trosly at least once a year with the young volunteers for retreats with Jean Vanier and we met the man himself and listened to him. It was a very inspiring and challenging time,” she says. “And I suppose looking back it really set me up for my current role in chaplaincy.”

It was a conversation with her husband about her dream job of third level chaplaincy, and in particular working in Maynooth, that led Catherine to her current role. Unknown to her, Cathal registered Catherine with an online recruitment agency and eventually a job alert came in for chaplaincy in Dublin diocese, which turned out to be for NUI Maynooth.

Lay team

Catherine started work in February 2012, joining Shay Claffey, the first lay male chaplain. As a lay team they have to be creative with their liturgies and depend on their colleagues in St Patrick’s Pontifical College for sacramental services, but Catherine does not see being a lay person as a disadvantage in her role.

“I think there is a movement of using lay people. There are graduates coming out of university every year with solid theology degrees and masters, so there is a wealth of talent there that needs to be utilised at third level but at parish level as well, using our lay graduates to run Scripture courses or meetings, for parishioners who are thirsty to know more. It is an exciting time and it is nice to be part of it,” she says.

The chaplaincy team see themselves as the point of contact or faith presence on the campus for students of all faiths, but also those who don’t see themselves as religious at all.

“We are very conscious that chaplaincy is a place of encounter for students to dialogue around faith questions and around personal questions. Our catch phrase is that we provide support of presence and a listening ear to the campus community,” Catherine says.

“I don’t see a lack of faith amongst our students. I see a student population that is engaged in works of social justice on a day-to-day basis. I see a student population that is caring beyond belief of their fellow students and who are engaged in core Christian values on a daily basis.

“They don’t have the vocabulary around that being faith and they certainly wouldn’t be comfortable in going to Mass on a Sunday, but they would be comfortable in coming to a memorial service or a prayer service.”

Catherine says her main remit is pastoral care – “that could mean listening to a student’s frustrations or anger, attending funerals of students, staff or family members on behalf of the university, we would advocate on behalf of students in terms of missed deadlines or lectures, we would visit students in hospital, and I sit on the student aid committee where we try to help students who have unforeseen financial crises,” she says.

“Some people would put our work into the social welfare category and it can be, but we do all of that from a faith perspective, we do it from being a chaplain and if that is watered down then we lose our unique selling point.

“If students have no other faith encounter in that week, their encounter with me as the chaplain, not as the nurse, or the counsellor, or as the lecturer, is that faith encounter. That is the key.”

Catherine says lack of resources and financial challenges for third level institutions is a major issue of concern for chaplains nationwide, especially with developments such as UCC’s proposal to downgrade the university’s chaplaincy department to a part time service.

Financial pressure

“The financial pressure in universities is providing value for money,” she says. “At the level of being highly thought of and valued among our presidents in all the universities I don’t think we have any problem there, but when it goes deeper and when it is a question of I have x amount of euros to spend, I need a lecturer but I also need a chaplain, then you wonder where the money will be put. Obviously the main thrust of an academic institution is its teaching, but we worry in chaplaincy,” she says.

“It is more than a job title, so when we hear talk of chaplaincy becoming ‘chaplaincy and welfare officer’ or some other tag on we worry and say no, that it not something I am interested in, because in a couple of years’ time it will become welfare officer and where will my chaplaincy be? We would be advocating and mobilising and wanting a strong voice, saying chaplaincy is needed on third level campuses as a faith presence fulfilling spiritual needs.”