Neumann University students, faculty say faith is strengthened amid pandemic

ASTON, Pa. — No one is immune to life’s trials and tribulations, especially not during a global pandemic.

So how do we cope with challenging circumstances in this new reality? A number of students at Neumann University in Aston, find strength in their faith.

Sacred Heart Chapel at Neumann University in Aston, Pa., is seen in this undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy The Dialog)

As routines have shifted, both students and faculty at the Catholic university have had to find new ways to manage their lives and retain some sense of normalcy.

In a typical semester, classrooms are full, hallways are buzzing with conversation, and it’s hard to find a good parking spot. The university’s campus ministry department would be in full operation with student retreats, trips and service projects.

This year, everything has been put on hold, drastically adapted or brought over to the virtual realm. Those who attended weekly or daily Mass had to find new ways to practice their faith when churches closed.

“The pandemic felt like a disruption in faith practice because there was the loss of routine,” said Maria Marx, associate director of Campus Ministry at Neumann. “Being Catholic, we’ve gone to Mass in-person for our whole lives. Not being able to do that and not having that sense of community … removed the motivation. It was hard to adjust.”

Pre-COVID-19, it was easy to take advantage of a church service, be involved and live out faith in tactile ways. When everything shut down, it was like nothing this generation had seen before.

But now, Marx says that she has seen students being able to adapt to the current circumstances.

While lives have changed in big ways, some have seen their connection with God strengthen.

“In a time of such uncertainty and such uneasiness … having a faith life and trusting the Lord has gotten me through,” Neumann junior Jake Loburak said.

He paused before continuing, speaking about the blessings he has still been able to experience during the pandemic. “COVID has taught me to treat everything as a blessing, and I feel like it’s strengthened my relationship with the Lord.”

Another student said the pandemic brought up many challenges, not only affecting religion, but also the way she approaches school.

“I was way more involved before. I would participate in more ways,” said Karla Barnes Molina, talking about church. But overall, her faith has not changed.

“It hasn’t touched my heart. I still have the same beliefs and feelings toward God. It’s just different than it was before,” she told The Dialog, newspaper of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. Neumann University, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, is just outside the diocese in the neighboring Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

While it’s still hard to be together and experience physical closeness with others, we can still have community with one another. It’s just different than it was before.

Patrick McKenzie, director of Campus Ministry at Neumann, has grown closer than ever with his small neighborhood block in South Philly during the pandemic. “We’re all we have right now. We see each other every day.”

Spending so much time at home, McKenzie and his family have found new ways to experience togetherness, talking fondly about the socially distanced block party his neighbors had in the spring.

“In the Gospel, the quote that we always use is, ‘Where two or three are gathered, I’m in your midst.’ God is at the center of community,” he said. “People desire community because God is present (there).”

Faith leaders say COVID-19 has had a great deal of impact on all of our communities, and deepened many relationships, both earthly and spiritual. Franciscan Sister Marguerite O’Beirne, Neumann’s vice president for campus mission and ministry, has a greater appreciation for the relationships in her life.

Under regular circumstances, Sister Marguerite would go home to Ireland to visit her family. This year, she’s making a lot more phone and FaceTime calls. “There’s a new way of connecting, but for me, and for us, it’s not the same.”

As for her spiritual relationship, working from home has given her more time to pray and reflect. “My faith has helped me to remain positive, remain hopeful, and not to be drawn into some of the negativity that’s happening in our world.”

Students and faculty at Neumann said having a strong faith life is helping them to keep going while being thankful and staying optimistic.

“We can respond differently if we’re connected to our faith, and to our God,” Sister Marguerite said.