Faith communities in University College Dublin (UCD) are growing, and offer a space for students to support each other in their Catholic beliefs, according to the university chaplain.
While there was only about a dozen students who attended lunchtime Mass when Fr Eamonn Bourke began his ministry four years ago, nowadays they get up to 60 students on Sundays.
“I think students particularly are careful about who they share their faith with and who they talk about faith with. It’s not easy being a Catholic today. Catholic teaching often stands in polar opposite to what society might be advocating,” says Fr Bourke.
“They’re finding support in each other, I suppose that’s the key to it, the Newman society is the Catholic society on campus and has grown. On a Monday night you’d have between 40-50 students meeting together for food and praying together and that’s continued to grow over the last couple of years.”
Fr Bourke says UCD is “an amazing place to work” and that he loves it, feeling he’s the “luckiest person”, as working with young people has been both encouraging and rewarding.
The Dublin priest grew up in Ballymun to a family with a strong faith, going to Mass on Sundays and praying the Rosary every day. With seven siblings, it was a big household. The seeds of his vocation, he believes, were planted when he was an altar server from a very early age but it was only after he completed his Leaving Cert he considered the priesthood seriously.
He studied electronics on Kevin Street for a year and “for some reason the idea of priesthood came back very strong,” he says, “I suppose I was influenced a lot by some very good local priests and they were great role models, very dedicated guys”.
“So I wasn’t really that convinced that I’d be accepted, I wasn’t sure I was really suitable for it to be honest with you, so I remember making an appointment to see the vocations director at the time and the rest is history. It just took off in its own direction, it’s a decision I’ll never regret, and from then on it was just the right move for me at the time.”
After spending some time as Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Dublin he went to another parish in Lucan, before moving on to UCD.”
Fr Bourke remembers hoping he would be sent anywhere but Tallaght, Co. Dublin in his first position – and that was where he was sent.
“I’d never been to Tallaght before, I just had it in mind as a difficult place,” he explains. His fears were proved to be unfounded as he found it to be an “amazing place”, full of “great families”. His next posting was Churchtown in Rathfarnham where he says his faith was bolstered and encouraged by an older parish community.
After spending some time as Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Dublin he went to another parish in Lucan, before moving on to UCD.
In supporting students personally and in faith formation, Fr Bourke has found that some students have a profound faith despite coming from families in which religion wasn’t practiced.
“One thing I’ll say about young people, they don’t seem to have the same hang-ups around the faith and the Church as older people might have, they’re much more open-minded and I think they’re looking around themselves and seeing what society is like and seeing what the world is like and realising there’s something more than this.
“They’re questioning themselves and they’re questioning what’s it all about and they’re willing to have a look at faith and try it out.
“What we’ve noticed I think is students coming to faith now whose parents faith background is almost non-existent. It’s almost like coming from a vacuum of faith.”
For Fr Bourke it’s a “search for meaning”, a feeling that there’s “something bigger than what you can see around you”.
Regarding his role overall as a chaplain he says: “The work varies from personal support for students. Students might be struggling to settle in, might have some personal issues, low self-esteem, anxiety is a factor, bereavement, a lot of personal issues, that’s one part of the work,” he says.
“The other side of it is faith formation, celebrating Mass there, Confessions, and one thing I’ve noticed an increase in is the amount of students looking for spiritual direction and learning how to pray, it’s been really encouraging.
“The faith of young people around 18, 19, 20 years of age, has just been phenomenal, when I look back at my own faith at that age I don’t think it would have been as strong as they have now today. You could have 50-60 students at lunchtime Mass on some days, on a Sunday morning, now we’d have a good number of students attending.”
He adds his work from a spiritual perspective “has grown exponentially”.
There are some students from abroad attending spiritual services but it’s generally Irish students according to the chaplain, and Focus missionaries from the US have been a great support.
I think the future is a smaller Church but a stronger Church and more prayerful I think really.”
Last year Fr Bourke launched his first book, Mercy in All Things, which is comprised of 30 prayerful reflections on excerpts from the diary of St Faustina. Looking into the future he says he may write another book, but that in general his hopes for the future are that faith will grow “in a real tangible way among young people”.
Their relationship with Christ is becoming more and more important… so they’ve grown in love with Christ, I think that’s the beautiful thing I’m noticing and I hope that continues to grow.
“I think the future is a smaller Church but a stronger Church and more prayerful I think really.”