DE PERE — Travis Vanden Heuvel belongs to a parish with a unique situation, one that other parishes probably wish they were facing. Each fall his parish is infused with 100 to 200 new and young Catholics, on fire for their faith and looking to become part of a community.
Engaging this crop of incoming St. Norbert College students is a challenge. As a member of St. Norbert College Parish, making connections with student parishioners is important to Vanden Heuvel because the connection he experienced with the Norbertine community while attending college was life changing for him.
“I was raised in the Lutheran tradition and completely fell out of my faith my freshman year in high school,” he said. A self-described atheist from then until his junior year in college, Vanden Heuvel said he reestablished a relationship with Christ “in large part because of the relationships I had with a number of Norbertine priests.”
Those men included his theology professor, Fr. John Bostwick; campus minister, Fr. Sal Cuccia; and Fr. Jim Baraniak, who was the pastor of the college parish when he was a student there.
Vanden Heuvel converted to Catholicism in 2014 under the guidance of Norbertine Fr. John Tourangeau. “Living life as a college student — service trips, conversations at the local coffee shop, the very hospitable and inviting way that they would have conversations about faith. I never felt like I was being proselytized to or evangelized to,” he said.
St. Norbert College cultivated Vanden Heuvel’s drive to give back to the community. For example, he chairs a committee that has helped raise $110 million for the college. He is also a member of the Endowment Fund Committee at Literacy Green Bay and he’s on the board of Team Triumph Wisconsin.
At St. Norbert College Parish Vanden Heuvel is co-chair of the parish pastoral council and was on a parish leadership team that attended “The Amazing Parish” conference last fall in Milwaukee.
“That’s a national program to reinvigorate parish life,” he said. “Typically, what that does for parishes is provides a much better vision and strategy for where the parish is heading. It does it in a way that’s much more individualized and personal for the parish.”
Creating more opportunities to engage year-round parishioners with the college student population is a priority at St. Norbert College Parish. “For a long time the approach was, ‘What can we do for them that will enhance their faith and keep them on fire?’” he said. “In recent years we’ve changed that approach to be one that is driven by them and their thoughts and needs. ‘What do you need from us to keep this fire alive?’”
While numerous organizations are trying to reach Catholic youth through social media, Vanden Heuvel noted that what these young adults really crave is face-to-face communication.
“They want to have conversations about the times and the places and ways that Christ is active and present in the lives of other Catholics. ‘How do you live as Jesus would in this day and age? Don’t tell me, show me,’” he said.
St. Norbert College Parish has numerous initiatives to connect with their student population. “It’s a ministry of presence,” said Vanden Heuvel. “I’m here Sunday night at 7 p.m. Mass, which is the most popular Mass for students. We have a number of other opportunities to gather as a faith community.”
A Generations of Faith program is offered every other Wednesday night. “It incorporates a lifelong learning curriculum, so the young children, like my daughter, go through catechesis and the college students and the adults and parents have the opportunity to gather — there’s a meal that’s shared, conversations are shared, speakers come in,” he said.
The catechists at St. Norbert College Parish are all college students. “The kids love it, the parents love it, the college kids love it,” he said. “There’s a sense of ownership, there’s a sense of pride in being able to pass along the faith that way. At the beginning of every year the catechists come together for a retreat of sorts so there’s an opportunity to interact with them and talk about the opportunities we have over the upcoming year to get children excited about coming to religious ed and excited about coming to Mass.”
The volunteer work that Vanden Heuvel does, particularly with college students, benefits him as much as it does the people he works with and for.
“I remember certain times in my life where I had conversations with people where I ‘got it.’ I grew closer in my relationship with Christ,” he said. “I reflect now and see those were some of the many stepping stones that got me to where I am now. … I can see where I’m having similar conversations with the students or parishioners — most of whom become close friends.”