When Oregon Jesuit Fr. Jack Bentz, began as campus minister at St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center at Boise State University last summer, he became the first Jesuit to hold that position in the school’s history. Now, he’s working to bring Ignatian spirituality to campus.
St. Paul’s is part of the consortium of Newman Centers, which are residence and Catholic ministry centers at non-Catholic universities. In addition to St. Paul’s there are two other centers – one at the University of Idaho, and another at Idaho State University. According to Chris Kreslins, Campus Ministry Coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, Fr. Bentz is the first Jesuit priest to serve as campus minister for any of those institutions.
“The Diocese needed priests, and the Society wanted to be doing campus ministry work in Idaho,” said Kreslins.
Over a period of years, as positions became available, the Diocese approached the Jesuits about opportunities at the three universities. Boise State, turned out to be an ideal fit: Fr. Bentz would be allowed to focus exclusively on campus and young adult ministry, as opposed to leading a parish. And with 22,000 students, the school offers a larger pool of potential vocations than many Jesuit university in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle University, by comparison, has an enrollment of 8,000.
“It was such a great opportunity,” said Bentz, who grew up on a ranch three hours west of Boise. “While we’re not just here for vocations, young men interested in vocations do come from this age group. So we said, ‘let’s go where they are.’”
Since Fr. Bentz arrived at St. Paul’s in July, participation in every facet of campus ministry has increased. Retreats have been successful and well attended; a Jesuit speaker series brought turnouts of 80-100 people, and mass has become so popular that they have added a second Sunday service.
“Fr. Bentz brings a different flavor and style to the community, and that is something that people are excited about,” Kreslins said.
But the Society’s work has not stopped at the campus’ property line. While the Jesuits don’t currently have a parish in Idaho, Bentz is very intentional about building a permanent presence in the community. He has invited local youth and young adults to take part in the activities at St. Paul’s.
“Research shows that 80 percent of all Catholic university students leave their faith during those college years. We are asking how we can help change that number,” Bentz said.
Although Fr. Bentz is 370 miles from his Jesuit community in Spokane, he said he has not felt lonely during his first six months in Boise. For one thing, he has had steady stream of Jesuit visitors; and for another, he is sustained by his work.
“While the Jesuits were first in Idaho in 1840, we’ve never been in Boise. It’s very satisfying to do that type of missionary work,” he said.
In the upcoming year, Fr. Bentz’ will be joined in Boise by a second Jesuit priest. And in the more distant future, it is likely that St. Paul’s will relocate and be rebuilt with a residence hall of approximately 150 rooms.
One of the obstacles to forming a community at Boise State is that currently only six percent of students live on campus. Fr. Bentz said that having a residence hall connected to the Catholic student center will boost their ability to reach the entire student body, not just the 2,100 Catholics.
“We are very enthusiastic for the future,” Benz said. “This not only changes the residency dynamic, but it also opens so much opportunity to host conferences, retreats, and many other events that teach Ignatian spirituality.”