UCF campus ministry then and now

Jun 22, 2023
Kimmy Zeiler (right) prays during a retreat in 2013. (COURTESY)

ORLANDO | Kimmy Zeiler arrived at the University of Central Florida in Orlando in 2005. At that time, she craved to share her faith with other young adults. The university’s Catholic Campus Ministry had just begun and there she found a home and a family focused on Christ.

Today she is part of the staff alongside the Brotherhood of Hope and St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO), a Catholic movement on college campuses across the country that builds dynamic communities of deep relationship as they witness to the Gospel. Zeiler counsels women and assists Brother Sam Gunn, the ministry director. The two were among 50 students at Catholic Campus Ministry’s inception, as was Father Josh Swallows, diocesan vocations director and pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo. Father Swallows was not even in the seminary when he arrived to lead the ministry after graduating from Florida State University in 2004.

Many of the things he brought with him to UCF were based on what the Brotherhood of Hope and SPO shared with him.

“Looking back at my life, I can say it has been full of conversion moments,” Father Swallows said. “I believe the Lord wants us to be open in such moments always, long after we have received the gift of faith.” His own conversion of heart came through a campus retreat focused on the Eucharist. That’s when he returned to the Church and received the Sacrament of Confirmation. … “That retreat changed my life forever. I fell in love with the Lord. I went to confession for the first time since I was a child. I encountered the Lord’s mercy like never before.”

The priest credited Father David Scotchie for inviting him to serve at UCF. The students “were amazing, like a standing army, wanting to go save the world,” Father Swallows recalled. He knew a similar model to FSU’s Campus Ministry could work at UCF. Eventually, Bishop Stephen Parkes, then parochial vicar of Most Precious Blood, asked him to be full-time director.

Brother Sam Gunn added, “(Father Swallows) is very gifted and just ran with it. Sometimes I feel like that’s where modern CCM got started. I see him as the modern founder of CCM as we know it.”

Zeiler recalled early on the ministry was student-led. She noted they were “a little zealous” in their commitments. Several lived in “households” and their obligations spread them in different directions.

“It was difficult to lead women when I was in the same spot myself,” she said. “Having someone with a little more wisdom and prudence” helped improve communication. Currently, as campus minister, she counsels women and SPO missionaries who head the households, making the model more sustainable.

The “model” to which she refers is the joint partnership between the Brotherhood of Hope and SPO – which arrived in 2015 with the goal to create “one spiritual family”. This looks different on every campus.

She said SPO’s mission is to accompany students, to walk beside them as they live life. “The missionaries are culturally far different from what the college students are experiencing elsewhere, and that type of thing is attractive and makes them wonder, what is this Catholic thing?” she said. “If you’re having this fun and living this full life, then there must be something more about this.”

Brother John McCabe recalled the Brotherhood was originally invited by Bishop John Noonan hoping “to do what we’ve done at other schools — to build up a community of missionary disciples, to use Pope Francis’s term – through evangelization, spreading the Gospel and building up a community that wants to follow the Lord.” He said the fruit borne of this are healthy vocations to marriage, priesthood, and religious life. “The broad mission was to build a deeper, wider Catholic community here,” he said, by making connections and building relationships and opportunities for encounter with the Lord.

One such chance for encounter is “Adore” nights. “The heart of Adore nights is activating faith,” Brother Gunn explained. “The idea is there are no spectators. If you come to an Adore night, you’re either asking for prayers, offering prayers, or adoring the Lord. I think, in that, is a very healthy realization that to be in the presence of the Eucharist is to be a part of a communion that is a living thing – where we’re all serving each other.”

With a background in art and love of “tinkering”, Brother Gunn sees the ministry growing and ever-changing. He compares it to a painting by the Impressionist painter, Claude Monet. “Up close, you just see a lot of color. It looks look like a mess. But step back and see, that’s a cathedral or a person walking by the water. I think that’s what I see in the community—lots of different colors, but you step back and see, oh, it makes a picture. It makes a whole. But that picture is always changing. The light changes all the rest,” he said.

Looking ahead he sees new opportunities for retreats abroad and the growth of a post UCF CCM community. Many former graduates are staying local so the hope is to create groups based in home parishes that can meet regularly, share, and grow together as faithful, devoted Catholics with families and successful careers.

Remarking on those changes Father Swallows added, “These students bring me tremendous hope.” He notes his joy and the blessing that is his return to the ministry as a priest.

Today, roughly 400 students regularly participate in the celebration of Sunday Mass. Considering UCF is such a big school, Father Swallows says he wishes there were more. But he adds, at the mid-week holy day of obligation and weekend-long Eucharistic centered retreats, there are at least 200. “In other words, the ones who do attend Mass, are incredibly faithful,” he said. “I believe many will be future leaders in our parishes.”

To learn more, please visit ccmknights.com

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, June 23, 2023

CCM Then and Now