(L-R) Omondi Andrew, Holy Cross assistant chaplain; Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, Holy Cross director of the Chaplains’ Office; Vincent D. Rougeau, Holy Cross president; Preeta Banerjee, Tufts University Hindu chaplain; and Rabbi Aviva Fellman, Congregation Beth Israel spiritual leader, participate in the Multifaith Community Prayer service on Jan. 22, 2024. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)

More than ever, college students are desiring belonging and connection, says Marybeth Kearns-Barrett ’84, director of the Chaplains’ Office at the College of the Holy Cross. “The need is especially high right now: perhaps that is because of the pandemic, or the way our phones connect, but also isolate us,” she says. “So how do we help our young adults, across faith traditions and beliefs, live with a sense of belonging and connection, not just to one another, but to the whole world? That is the challenge — to help them see that this is possible and necessary.”

Holy Cross is a Jesuit, Catholic college, but its students represent a diversity of faith practices and beliefs, including atheism and agnosticism, Kearns-Barrett notes. To respond to the spiritual needs of all students, she and her colleagues draw on Ignatian spirituality, as well as insights from the latest research on the spiritual lives of young adults, as they ask themselves: How do we inspire contemplatives in action? How do we activate communities of hope committed to a faith that does justice?

“We are called to accompany young people in a hope-filled future,” Kearns-Barrett says. “It is not enough that they are individual contemplatives. We have to recognize our kinship with one another and all of creation. Hope does not flourish without community. So it is important to have visible, communal gestures.”

At Holy Cross, one such annual event, Multifaith Community Prayer, has become a tradition.

Members of the Holy Cross community gathered in the Mary Chapel for its annual Multifaith Community Prayer service (Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)

A Holy Cross tradition: Multifaith Community Prayer
“In 2012, we decided to begin the spring semester with the Multifaith Community Prayer, which reflects our religiously diverse community,” Kearns-Barrett says. The annual tradition often draws several hundred students, faculty and staff to an evening service in January, held on campus at the start of the spring semester.

Religious leaders from local faith communities, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, are invited to share readings and music from their traditions. Students light candles in honor of the many faith traditions and beliefs held by members of the College community, including atheists, as well as agnostics, seekers, and questioners.

“It is an important way to build relationships with the local faith community, and also a way for our students, faculty and staff to see their faiths and beliefs represented,” Kearns-Barrett says.

She notes that researchers at Springtide Research Institute have found that many young people today are drawing on various faith traditions to form their own spiritual paths, a process described as “unbundling, bundling and re-bundling.” This approach to spiritual development means it is more important than ever to offer opportunities like Multifaith Community Prayer so that students across traditions and beliefs can join in community, Kearns-Barrett explains.

Each year, the service focuses on a critical need facing the world. This year’s service centered around peace, while last year’s focused on cherishing the Earth. “We name a challenge that is weighing on our world to help our students see that this concern is shared by people of all faiths and beliefs,” Kearns-Barrett says.

Rabbi Aviva Fellman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, MA, was invited to represent the Jewish community this year as one of five local faith leaders. “I shared a teaching from the Jewish tradition that relates that we are not just children (banim) but rather builders (bonim) of peace,” Rabbi Fellman says. “The multifaith service is an event that I look forward to each year, as it both is true to the traditions of the hosts, but also makes space for the rich diversity of the campus and its surrounding communities.

“Events like that show how much we have in common with each other and give us a foundation for appreciating and being appreciated as a greater community,” she continues. “When we are able to come together for a joint purpose, we see that we have shared values and goals, even when our vocabularies, theologies and rituals differ.”

Members of the Holy Cross community gathered in the Mary Chapel for its annual Multifaith Community Prayer service (Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)

‘Ignatian spirituality gives us a way to reach people of all backgrounds’
“So much of the work of the Chaplains’ Office — from immersion programs to our retreats — is about welcoming students of all backgrounds,” Kearns-Barrett says. “Many students today do not belong to a particular faith tradition anymore, but still have a relationship with God. One research study has shown that many still have experiences they would name as ‘sacred.’ The challenge of reaching this generation requires being attuned to new ways of expressing faith.”

Kearns-Barrett explains that Ignatian spirituality, which can be translated broadly, offers many entry points that respond to deep human needs to love and be loved, to encounter the sacred, and to contribute to the common good providing us with a starting point for connecting with students.

Students at Holy Cross learn about the Ignatian tradition early in their college careers when they attend an evening at the College’s Thomas P. Joyce ’59 Contemplative Center through the first-year Montserrat program. Phones are left at the door and retreatants are welcomed into a peaceful space.

“We give a brief introduction to St. Ignatius and how, by slowing down to pay attention to his own heart and the world, he believed he could discern God’s invitation to him,” Kearns-Barrett says. “We tell students, ‘Whether you believe in God or not, we are inviting you to slow down and pay attention to what is happening in your hearts and what you are drawn to in the world. This is a valuable skill you can learn.’”

Students reflect on their first semester — from coursework to extracurriculars to relationships — before they are led through a broad, inclusive version of the Ignatian Examen. Students are invited to substitute “love” for “God,” as fits their traditions and beliefs. They are encouraged to connect with peers over a technology-free dinner lit by candles, and have the option to move their bodies through a yoga practice.

“Ignatian spirituality gives us a way to reach people of all backgrounds, including people who do not have a relationship with their God, or have been hurt by the Church. Our work with the LGBTQ community is a really good example of that. We want to welcome everyone,” Kearns-Barrett says. “Even if you have left a faith community, it is still possible to have kinship with other people and a way of believing that matters.”

By Meredith Fidrocki, Writer, College of the Holy Cross