Many Catholic Students Fill A ‘Gap Year’ With Faith-Based Service


An increasing number of students have taken a one-year school break to gain hands-on learning experience in the world outside of the classroom.

Some call it a “gap year,” which can take place before entering college or later. Often, students take a break after earning a bachelor’s degree, while discerning graduate school or the next steps in their careers.

The Catholic Volunteer Network has been promoting a year of service – especially denominational service – for more than 50 years, long before sabbaticals became part of the college lexicon.

“A gap year is a time to explore the world around you and within you and to get excited about what is really important to you,” says the nonprofit Gap Year, which seeks to expand access to participants in university credits and federal financial aid.

The lure of the sabbaticals has created a booming industry of travel programs, books, and resource guides, and gained momentum last year at the height of the pandemic, when many students decided that they did not want to start their university experience attached to Zoom. About 20% of freshmen entering Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts last year have postponed enrollment due to the pandemic, said the university, which endorsed the idea of ​​sabbaticals. .

At the same time, a growing movement is working to shift the focus of sabbaticals from personal enrichment to civic engagement and national service. The Service Year Alliance, formed in 2016, aims to make one year of full-time paid service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.

The Catholic Volunteer Network has been promoting a year of service – especially denominational service – for more than 50 years, long before sabbaticals became part of the college lexicon.

Founded in 1963 by a Catholic priest from New Jersey whose sister had spent a year volunteering with a religious missionary group, the network’s original vision was to create a “Church Peace Corps”. Today, it is the leading membership organization for Christian volunteer and mission programs, said Yonce Shelton, executive director. About 70 percent of the program’s volunteers are under 25 and 90 percent identify as Catholic, he said.


Many of the thousands of students who sign up to volunteer each year have been made aware of faith-based service opportunities at college career fairs or campus ministry; 58 percent of the volunteers went to Catholic colleges. But students also often hear about the programs through word of mouth. “A priest, mentor, or someone on campus has a good experience and talks to people about it,” Shelton said.

Most of the network’s programs aim to attract those 21 and over to work for a year or two after college, although some accept students under the age of 21. Although some organizations send volunteers overseas, “that’s not tourism to be it,” Shelton said. “We are providing visibility to the faith-based services arena to try to get the message across. “

A ‘Choose a Service’ video series on the network’s website shows young people serving in a variety of settings, from education and health care to inner-city social services, prison ministry, agriculture and environmental work. Many share their thoughts on a blog on the site.

A searchable database and recently updated printed directory, RESPONSE 2022, includes volunteer opportunities with over 100 organizations, from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest to the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky and the Red Cloud Volunteer Program on the Indian reservation. of Pine Ridge in South Dakota. About 85 to 90 percent of the programs are Catholic ministries, Shelton said.


Most of the programs focus on the values ​​of community, simple living, social and ecological justice, and spiritual reflection, Shelton said. Most also provide volunteers with a small stipend, as well as board and lodging.

One program that is part of the network is L’Arche USA, which has 18 communities across the country where many young adult “helpers” live in family settings with adults with developmental disabilities, called “core members”. L’Arche has two homes in Arlington, which are part of L’Arche Greater Washington, DC

Yuko Gibson, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2014, used her two years of work as an assistant in Arlington as an intermediate experience before beginning her medical studies.

Gibson said his time at L’Arche was one of the most joyful and formative experiences of his life. “There was a lot less emphasis on what I was able to produce or do and a lot more on being with people and just slowing down,” she said. “Church was an important part of our weekly rhythm and one of my favorite times in L’Arche was going to mass with the main members on Sunday,” she said. Several members of the L’Arche community attend Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington.

Shelton said COVID-19 has made many changes to the programs of network members, but about 85% were able to pivot quickly during the pandemic to keep their programs ongoing and continue to accept volunteers.

“It’s hard to realize how much a global pandemic shapes the very essence of who you are. But discerning what these changes mean for your relationship with God and how you may feel called to respond is important, ”Shelton said.

Find out more

Search the Catholic Volunteer Network for church service opportunities or get a copy of the new RESPONSE 2022 directory at

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