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 | By The Serra Club

Q&A with Father Rhett: On developing Catholic young adults

Father Rhett B. Williams is director of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston and pastor of St. Thomas More Church, which serves the campus of the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia. We asked Father Williams about his teaching and pastoral work with college and high school students in our state.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of working with USC students as pastor of St. Thomas More?

Fatherhood. I get to watch students enter USC who are at all different stages of their spiritual and vocational lives. While they figure out or deepen their knowledge of who and whose they are, I am the primary father figure that gets to walk with them. I hear and see their successes, their break-ups, their moments of trial, their moments of glory. I see them find themselves on mission trips, conferences, retreats and pilgrimages, while at the same time I have to watch some of them learn through the fires of experience. Through all of these, both I and their parents find solace in the fact that students have a sound refuge to return to at our Newman Center. What better place is there for a priest than where he can be a father to those finding their way while away from home at the most critical part of their lives?

What are some of the main challenges of pastoral work with college students?

The flesh, the world and the devil. Let’s be honest, when completely free to do what they want without supposed repercussions, there exists a temptation to indulge. The desires of the flesh present a great challenge in the areas of chastity and gluttony for college students. Many have not been formed at home in these areas and then are set loose on college campuses. Then comes the world. The culture tells them that it is all OK at this point in their lives. Their “friends” are doing it, many haven’t seen a good example at home in these areas, and so holes get dug in college. The pressure is real, and the devil uses it to war against the parts of them that are still responsive to the Lord’s call. Spiritual warfare is real, and it is most alive in the college realm. Hence, the crucial nature of our spiritual home while at college.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of visiting Catholic high school students in our state?

This has been a sneakily successful part of our ministry. Our team visits our Catholic high schools in the diocese to speak to all seniors about college and campus ministry. The team is composed of chaplains, campus ministers, FOCUS missionaries and current students who talk a little bit about what campus ministry is, why it is important and the reality on the ground in college. Then we take questions, which always starts slow, but almost always picks up as they think about college curiosities. Now we are seeing more and more students who seek out their campus ministry when they stay in state for college, and they say, “Remember me from high school? We met when you came to our classroom with your team.”
I smile every time now.

What are some of your main impressions of those visits with high school students?

Most tend to have the same fears and excitements about college. They yearn for freedom yet are anxious about what that means. Yes, they can now be masters of their own schedule, but that also means they have to wash their own clothes, which comes up more often than you might think! Some worry about the academic load and about scholarships and money, and some worry about roommates and homesickness. Most are excited about the new people and opportunities in their lives. 

What would you advise college and high school students about discerning God’s presence and grace as the Good Shepherd in their daily activities and distractions?

In general, you can’t hear what you aren’t listening for. Take a couple minutes at the beginning of your day to ask for what you and others need, and a couple minutes at the end of the day to reflect on what happened that day. If you become consistent in that, you will be surprised how things may begin to clear up. If you go to a Catholic high school, make a point to do those reflections in the chapel. If you are in college, get access to the Newman chapel, and go out of your way to reflect and pray there. Not only does prayer work, but praying in the chapel puts you in a good spot to meet others doing the same.

What would you advise college and high school students about discerning God’s presence and grace if they use the internet for social media, virtual reality or AI chat?

Simply, there should be a time each week or each day that you fast from technology. If you do it each day, target a time or place, for example, on the way to school or in bed at night. If you fast from technology once a week, choose a time period, like Friday evenings. Just as we fast from meat on Fridays or make some other sacrifice to temper our bodies, fasting from tech allows us to temper our minds and souls.

The Serra Club of Charleston is a member of the USA branch of Serra International, with the goal of nurturing vocations. Contact Debra Dinolfo at for information or to join.