The ACU Ethics Hub is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae with a ‘Masterclass on Any Catholic University’, exploring how various member groups are understood in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In this lesson, Professor Ramsay explores the role of campus ministry and chaplaincy staff.


Everyone at a Catholic university should have some understanding of what the life of faith means to the institution. But some have a special duty to forward the life of faith. Campus ministries or chaplaincies obviously lead in this regard.

A statue in the ACU Strathfield campus.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae draws particular attention to the importance of sustaining worship (prayer and sacraments) at Catholic universities. In a sense nothing matters more than this. Prayer, however uttered, is the sacrifice of what a person has, what is in them, to God. The sacraments are the physical signs of the tremendous spiritual realities by which Christ sustains us – at birth, in love, in sin, as a people, at death. Yet let us be realistic: few Catholic universities attract enormous numbers to the sacraments, and busy people, including believers, may not always or regularly pray at work. What else might a campus ministry offer?

Clearly, it is the highly complex task of integrating living faith within broad university life that is the key work of our chaplains and their associates. Why is the task

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae draws particular attention to the importance of sustaining worship (prayer and sacraments) at Catholic universities. In a sense nothing matters more than this.”

so complex? Because a Catholic university is also a university, which means there are many essential tasks of a secular or worldly nature to be undertaken and a high level of independence, autonomy and public accountability to be observed.

Campus ministries face a complex balancing task: too high or intensely spiritual an approach will see them dismissed as irrelevant, while too accommodating or socially-engaged an approach will see them convicted for interference or appeasement.

Meantime, in terms of their operation or ‘pitch’, sole focus on Catholics, or committed Catholics, or daily worshipping Catholics, or…would narrow the focus so that integration of faith with the university is unlikely. On the other hand, offering services that are not just Catholic but Christian, not just Christian but for all faiths, not just for all faiths but for all people…is similarly reductive; widening the group beyond reason and purpose is as destructive as narrowing it to the insiders only.

Campus ministry continued…

Each university’s ministry team faces these problems, as well as broader problems of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, progressivism and traditionalism, conservatism and liberalism, and each uses their expertise to address these questions, make decisions and set goals. At an absolute minimum, some things are clear: 1) every single university member is an object of prayer and concern, and always has the opportunity to approach to discuss matters of (any) faith, morality and to seek support and counsel; 2) Catholics who are uncommitted or not practising are especially welcome, within the wonderful example of the Prodigal Son; 3) practising Catholics should be supported in their faith and should feel at least as free as any other group to profess and practise their religion; 4) all Christians, who share a common baptism, are sincerely invited to pray together; 5) all believers, of any faith, are sincerely invited to discuss and explore common understandings – and tensions.

These five points seem to constitute a minimum for any ministry or chaplaincy service at any Catholic university. In fact, campus ministries usually offer much more: programs of Evangelisation and New Evangelisation; talks and discussions presenting and exploring Catholicism – and often the very idea of religion and what this means and how it interacts with other parts of life; genuine friendship and sociable welcome, particularly for anyone who finds this difficult elsewhere on campus; the opportunity to build and enhance peace - between peoples and their faiths, within individuals, across campuses and in residences. Religion, friendship and peace; these are fairly good goals for a Catholic chaplaincy or ministry. And what is the difference between chaplaincy and ministry? Every university will give a different account, but ministry is certainly more comprehensive and better fits with the five points mentioned above.

One risk on Catholic campuses (and schools, and hospitals, and other agencies) is that people tend to leave the ‘religious bit’ to the spiritual professionals. Thus, the Chaplain’s programs and efforts are thought to tick the box for these matters, and however strong their efforts to integrate faith and empower spiritual champions across the institution, ministries are often left as sole representatives of the Catholic aspect on campus.

The very point of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is that this must not happen. Ex Corde sets out to show how the work of creating and developing a Catholic university falls to multiple groups within the university. There are no spiritual professionals, just the whole institution trying its best. There is religious knowledge and expertise in every Catholic campus ministry I know, and there is genuine kindness. But every minister wishes to inculcate that knowledge and expertise in others, and to share around the kindness. Hence, the gift, as always, is best given away.

A statue in the ACU North Sydney campus.
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Grounded in the university's Catholic identity and the charisms of our foundation religious communities, Campus Ministry's outreach embraces people of all faith traditions.
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