Madeline Jarosik regularly chooses to begin her weekend at the St. John Paul II Newman Center near the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Scott Campus.
Jarosik attends holy hour for prayer, followed by Mass.
“Here, I found my college faith,” said the UNO freshman journalism major. “Bringing my adolescent faith — what I had in high school — and growing it. Discovering what to do for the rest of my life, and how Jesus is going to play a part in it.”
It’s Friday early evening, and the Rev. Joe Taphorn is telling his Newman Center parishioners — mostly college-age adults attending UNO — how the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife has meaning today. Lot’s wife, though warned not to do so, couldn’t help but look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. She turned into a pillar of salt.
She likely couldn’t part with earthly attractions, Taphorn explained to the worshippers, saying that students also have earthly attractions that may grow stronger as the end of the semester approaches, competing with tests that must be taken and papers that are coming due.
“Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus,” he told the students.
The center serves as a spiritual home to many, and the physical home to some. It includes living space for 164 students who live in one-, two- and four-person suites. All are welcome at the center — its residents, students who live elsewhere, and those who attend other Omaha universities and colleges, he said.
“So as any parish, we’re a community of faith and a community of believers. We are a spiritual home, but the physical home does enhance that mission,” Taphorn said.
On school days, Newman Center residents come and go. Between classes, they spend time in the center’s common areas studying, socializing and serving. Nonresidents are welcome to do the same.
“We invite people to pop in and pray when they desire,” he said.
Taphorn and other center staffers routinely interact with residents and visitors. “Part of my job is hanging out. It’s not a hard thing to do,” he smiled. It affords an opportunity to engage students in a much deeper, more spiritual way.
“Living here allows for a deeper investment in the individual,” he said. “I don’t see them once or twice a week at Mass. I may see them every day.”
Josh Richards, a UNO sophomore social work major from Papillion who serves as a resident assistant, enjoys spending time with the priests. “Living here, it’s easy to see the joy the priests have,” he said.
Hayden Meyer, a UNO junior aviation major from Pawnee City, Nebraska, sees the priests as “regular guys. Guys who like to watch Monday Night Football with you.”
Taphorn’s interaction with students includes providing counseling and marriage preparation. The center already has hosted three weddings, and he’s currently providing religious instruction to five students.
Newman Centers, which can be found at non-Catholic universities throughout the world, are named in honor of Cardinal John Henry Newman. They provide pastoral services and ministries to the Catholic communities at the universities. But only a handful of the centers include residence halls, Taphorn said.
The Omaha center’s location near UNO was critical to fulfilling its ministry. The Archdiocese of Omaha began work to start a Newman Center near UNO in 2009 and launched a site search in 2011. The center opened last year.
It quickly began drawing a crowd. Mass each day draws up to 80 worshippers; the Sunday morning and evening Masses draw about 240 collectively.
“This is a place to retreat from a busy world. A place to be more human,” Taphorn said. “To be more human is a good thing. To be fully human, we need to live and pray in a healthy way.”