Students gathered for Mass on a recent afternoon in the Cal State Fullerton student union, dropping their backpacks by the door, greeting each other and taking their seats.
The conference room was a temporary refuge from the busy campus, offering students a chance to take a brief study break and celebrate their faith.
“The Lord is always with us,” said Rev. Mark Aaron Riomalos, director of Campus Ministry, during the Mass in May. “With humility we open our hearts for strength.”
The students are part of Titan Catholic, a growing community on campus providing students with educational, religious, cultural and social opportunities.
Freddy Uyehara, a bass player majoring in music, said the university’s Catholic community has been an important part of his personal journey.
“It’s helped me grow as a Catholic, and understand how faith connects to our lives as young adults,” Uyehara said. “The Church has helped me develop into the person I am today.”
Mass, bible study sessions and other events on campus are organized through the Diocese of Orange and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, a national outreach organization that places missionaries at college campuses across the U.S. to engage and support Catholic students.
The Cal State Fullerton students said belonging to a strong Catholic community on campus helps them navigate daily challenges while reinforcing core values.
“It’s held me accountable during the week, so I’m not just a Catholic on Sundays,” said Michele Ballestero, a Human Services major. Ballestero chose to attend Cal State Fullerton because of the strong Catholic ministry on campus.
“I wanted to be a part of a strong faith community,” she said. “It has served me well.”
During his homily, Fr. Riomalos urged students to practice trust and compassion in their daily lives, and to not fear changes or obstacles in their life journeys.
He told the students a story of his own mother, who worked far from home and could only make occasional visits to see her family.
“I couldn’t understand why she always left us to go back to work,” Riomalos said. “She told me she did it to support me, and because she loved me. Knowing that she loved and cared about me was enough for me to let her go.”
A native of the Philippines, he entered the seminary when he was 16.
“When I was younger, life was a little bit tough,” said Fr. Riomalos, who grew up in Manila with three sisters and a twin brother. “Living in the city, it was all about survival.”
Fr. Riomalos was ordained when he was 25 as part of the Disciples of Mary, a religious community focused on youth ministry. He said he was drawn to ministering young adults because of his own life experiences.
“I was inspired because I wanted to help people who were once like me,” he said. “I wanted to pay it forward.”
For Fr. Riomalos, the Mass in May was his last as Cal State University’s chaplain. Most Rev. Bishop Vann, Bishop of Orange, named him parochial vicar at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, an assignment he will begin in July. Rev. Aaron Galviz will become the university’s Catholic chaplain.
In his role as chaplain, Fr. Riomalos, 35, provided spiritual guidance to students, many of whom are contemplating major decisions that will influence the rest of their lives.
“Sometimes they lose their way,” he said. “You have to listen and understand how they think, so you can walk with them on their spiritual journey.”
Cal State Fullerton is home to a large Catholic and spiritual community. Titan Catholic is among 22 registered faith-based organizations on campus, according to university officials. Today, about 200 students are actively involved in the university’s FOCUS ministry, a number that continues to climb.
Fr. Riomalos said reaching students while they are in college empowers them to form strong connections to their faith that may last a lifetime.
“After high school and confirmation, their faith often fades,” he said. “It’s important to continue spiritual formation in college. When you enter a new chapter in life, or face a new challenge, you will have a solid foundation of faith from which to grow.”
After the Mass in May, students joined Fr. Riomalos for a group photo and to say goodbye. They thanked him for his guidance, while he thanked them for their commitment to their journeys of faith.
“I’ll continue to pray for your personal and spiritual growth,” he said. “And although our distance apart may be different, I will always be your priest.”