Bears, Bruins and Banana Slugs were able to sit down and eat at the same table. That was just part of the good will engendered at the University Catholic Conference of California, at which more than 200 college students, representing 24 campuses, converged on Berkeley for four program-packed days in January.
While the conference originally was aimed at students from the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California, they were joined in their second year by students from community, state college and university, and private school campuses from around the state. Young alumni and campus ministers joined them.
Started by four friends with a "what if?" idea last year, the conference featured guest speakers, small group discussions and liturgies for the students, most of whom are active in Catholic groups on their campuses.
On Jan. 18, the participants rode buses from Berkeley, where the majority of the events were held at Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish and nearby International House, to the Cathedral of Christ the Light. Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, was their dinner host in the event center and presider at Holy Hour afterward in the cathedral.
Dinner table conversations seemed to flow freely. They were among friends, even if they hadn't known each other before the conference.
The value to students was in "knowing you have a group of people sharing the same faith," said Elizabeth Virgen, a member of the Catholic Club at Cal State University East Bay.
At UC Riverside, Roben Van Dusen said, there are "a lot of competing views about the Catholic Church and a lot of non-believers." He said the conference provided him the opportunity to gain strength "to be able to defend my faith and be able to talk about your beliefs."
Kris Osea, a graduate student at Claremont College, was attending as an alumnus of UC Irvine. UC Irvine students had high praise for their campus Interfaith Center. "Our Catholic community uses it the most," he said.
It's a "very spiritual place to be," said Leann Kampley, a current student at the Irvine campus.
Several students said that being Catholic on a big public university campus can be challenging.
"I'm obsessed with God," said Ryan Teves, a first-year student at UC Santa Cruz. "It's an addiction," he said. "A good one."
Teves, who attends daily Mass in churches near campus and on-campus Masses on Sunday, said, "I want to evangelize."
"Yeah, it's liberal," he said of the campus, "but people respect" his views, he said, particularly the homeless people he speaks with.
As she sat at the table after dinner engaged in conversation, Katie Autore, a Sacramento State student, comfortably engaged in an activity she said her family often does. Her hands flew through the air as she made hand-knotted rosaries.
"Forever," she replied when asked how she had been making them. She and her family have made them for charities, she said, and she has taught faith formation classes how to make their own rosaries.
After dinner, nine docents offered cathedral tours for the young visitors.
Bishop Barber spoke to the young people in the cathedral, emphasizing the importance of confession. Drawing from his experiences as a military chaplain on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he told of visiting Marines.
He told them, "If it's not your turn to die, no bullet will find you. But if it is your turn to die, tomorrow, or in this war, the only thing that will keep you from being with Christ in heaven is a mortal sin. Christ has sent me here to take away any sins through the Sacrament of Confession."
He told the troops he would be available for confession. "'I'll just stand here in the sand.' Every single person came up."
"Even people who weren't Catholic came to confession," he added.
They included one who had asked to be baptized. Which then-Father Barber, using water from his canteen, did.
He gave each Marine a holy card of St. Michael the archangel, patron of soldiers, and a medallion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
"Not one Marine entrusted to my care died in that war," he said, "and I was chaplain for 4,000 Marines. Praise God."
He encouraged the students to go to confession. "The priests are there to represent the love and mercy of Jesus," he said.
He also encouraged them to use the Holy Hour "to ask Him for whatever it is you need."
"When you run out of things to ask for" he said, "count your blessings."
Priests were available in each confessional, chapel and alcove of the cathedral.
After a Sunday of workshops and speakers, the students gathered again at Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley to end the day at 10 p.m. Mass.
After the event, the spiritual adviser to the conference, Father Bill Edens, CSP, of Newman Hall praised the work of the conference staff. "The core team and committee members, about 25 all told, have been working since last May to organize the conference and promote it statewide. UCCC joins the ranks of a regional and national style of young adult ministry that finds its roots in Catholic campus ministries on college and university campuses."
The conference's spirit will show in the students' campus life, and beyond. "Students are networking now so that when they leave the womb of the university parish they may encounter friends who share their love of the Catholic faith and help form the nucleus of a young adult ministry that is often lacking in local parishes," he said.
Father Edens said students from UC San Diego asked if they could host the event in 2015.
But until then, the Catholic students left with plenty to tide them over.
When asked what she will take back to UC Davis with her, Hannah Addington said, "The light."
"And friends," added Alyssa Gray of UC Riverside.
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