I was recently asked in an interview, what do University Chaplains actually do, and what are the challenges that university students face in a post-lockdown/‘COVID-normal’ world? Also, what is it like to be a chaplain in an increasingly secular and/or pluralistic society? The full interview, part of ABC RN’s God Forbid podcast, is available on the ABC website.

If you look for a definition of pastoral care on Wikipedia, you’ll find the following:

Pastoral care is an ancient model of emotional, social and spiritual support that can be found in all cultures and traditions. The term is considered inclusive of distinctly non-religious forms of support, as well as support for people from religious communities.

Wikipedia entry for Pastoral care.

My general role as Multi-Faith Coordinator on the UTS campus is to offer pastoral support to all students, regardless of their faith allegiance, (or lack of), faith groups, and chaplains representing specific faiths. The kinds of engagements I have with students can include a one-on-one pastoral meeting with a student, or occasionally a staff member; or with a group of students, (such as the Executive of a religious club). This could be a discussion around general concerns or pastoral support, or it could be guidance on a particular matter, or a suggestion of spiritual ideas for discussion. All of the chaplaincy, including myself, come under Counselling/Student Services so we will also refer students to counselling if necessary. 

Pastoral care in a post-pandemic world

Since the Covid pandemic has affected the worldwide community so profoundly, stoking general insecurity and anxiety globally and economically, there is a greater need now more than ever for a sense of belonging. International students in particular, may feel somewhat displaced having had to wait out the Covid pandemic; and now with increased insecurity and uncertainty, such feelings may have been heightened.

Unfortunately, there is often a general lack of religious literacy amongst the general public, plus some ignorance around the diverse and extremely varied theological and cultural views within, and between, religious and spiritual traditions. Sadly, there has sometimes been a misunderstanding around the role of chaplains in educational settings. This may be partly due to the misconceptions brought about by the bad press that school chaplaincy received, and the fear that chaplains may be there to proselytise. Proselytisation is strictly a no-no on university campuses and I would want to know if anyone was breaching that directive on campus.

Inclusive pastoral care at the UTS Multi-faith Chaplaincy

The UTS Multi-faith Chaplaincy began in 1995 when the University invited denominations and faiths to nominate chaplains to become part of it. At that time, Fr Peter Maher performed the dual role of Catholic Chaplain and Chaplaincy representative from 1995 until 2009. Other chaplains performed the role voluntarily until the University employed me in 2016. 

At UTS all chaplains of various faiths are asked to sign on to a commitment to be part of a multi-faith team and to contribute to multi-faith events and the inclusive environment on campus. They are here to support all students regardless of faith affiliation, or if the students have no belief at all. We have most of the major faith groups represented in chaplaincy: Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, and there are of course many different religious groups registered as Activate clubs. The chaplains interact with those groups only if they are invited by the group to do so.

Different cultures do their religion differently, and multiculturalism has highlighted the various ways to be inclusive and mindful of different cultures, traditions and religions. For example, there are spiritual techniques and meditation practices including ways to approach a religious or sacred text, and ways to pray, that can be similar across religions and can be used on campus to create interfaith understanding within and between traditions. This does not mean everyone agrees on everything, it just means people can express their various views respectfully to each other. For example some community Youth & Networking organisations such as ‘YOUTHPOWR’ (part of the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations)  have frequent interfaith events. They recently produced The Sydney Statement, which calls for greater interfaith cultural harmony and dialogue. 

The UTS Multi-Faith Chaplaincy has also run various events over the years to promote such understanding including Women and Faith, Populism and Faith, Spirituality and Mental Health, and Climate Change and Faith. 

Since we are living in such a precarious world, it is now more important than ever, for the sake of humanity, and the planet, for people of faith generally to unite and recognise the common bonds in our beliefs. Universities have a vital role in that process. Throughout their education, students and staff can not only become the best person they can be, they can also use their skillsets to help humanity, and thereby push for greater global peace and harmony. 

How to contact the UTS Multi-faith Chaplaincy

For more information, you can visit the UTS Multi-faith Chaplaincy website, or contact me at Joanna.Thyer@uts.edu.au.

Feature image by Soumyadip Sarkar.

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