Hello college doesn’t mean goodbye church

For some students, going away to college is often viewed as a chance to be liberated from their parents and the restrictions of family life. One such parental rule that is exercised in many Catholic homes is the one about Mass attendance. I can still hear my own father and mother saying to us when we would rather stay in bed on a Sunday morning, “As long as you live in this house you will go to Mass.” Does this sound familiar?

Aside from the natural tendency many young people have to rebel against authority, living away from home, especially for the first time, presents many challenges. It can be difficult to live the faith without good support systems. In most cases we learn about our faith from our parents, teachers and other mentors. College is a prime time for young people to begin to mature in their faith. Attendance at Mass and practicing the faith becomes a personal responsibility. No parent or other authority figure is around to make one go to church.

Sometimes I have heard students and other young adults declare, “I didn’t ask to be a Catholic. My parents made that decision for me. I was just a baby and not able to choose my own religion.” That is true for those of us baptized as infants, but the fact still remains that we received the gift of faith through our parents and one of the tasks of young adulthood is to own that faith and mature in it. We are part of the Church whether we chose it or not.

College is a special time for intellectual growth including knowledge and appreciation of our Catholic faith.

When I was a campus minister at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor we had a course every semester entitled “Catholic Update.” The pastor always gave a plug about the program at the end of Masses. He would challenge the people, particularly the students, by saying it seemed strange to him that so many of them were working on degrees in higher learning while they often had little more than an eighth-grade education in their faith. The statement made a real impact, and we always had large classes of students sincerely seeking to understand more about the richness of Catholicism.

Some students have a great need to explore different faith traditions during their college years and I think that is good. However, it is important to include the Catholic Church in that exploration. Sadly enough some people abandon their faith without ever actually knowing what the church really teaches and why.

College is also the time to deepen one’s relationship with Jesus. Among other things, faith and friendship with Jesus and His church provide the sustenance needed to get through college and all the challenges it presents.

As many will discover, when they are away from their support systems, they need the church even more. And not only does the church provide a haven during college days, it often provides a chance to discover and exercise one’s gifts. Students who become involved in campus ministry or at Newman Centers discover leadership abilities that they can use throughout their lives.

My advice to college students who are serious about their faith and relationship with God — or want to be — is to try some of the following suggestions:

Find a Mass buddy. Most young adults hesitate to attend on their own. It is very different not being connected to a family or with familiar people at Mass.

Establish a group of Catholic friends. Students have told me that they met some of their dearest friends — or even spouses — while they were involved in campus ministry.

Sign up for at least one activity that campus ministry provides, such as liturgical ministry, a faith sharing or scripture group, or sign up for a retreat. At Michigan, students in their final year or semester of school who went on a campus retreat for the first time often said how much they regretted not participating early on. It is a great way to make good friends who share similar values.

Find a parish where you can get involved. If you are a commuter student who does not live on a campus or goes to a school that does not have its own Catholic center, finding a local church is a necessity. Talk to the pastor about opportunities to connect and use your abilities there. Find other students who are also interested and start your own sharing or service group.

Find a mentor or a spiritual advisor with whom you can express your doubts, fears, concerns, questions, etc. about the church. This can be a priest, religious brother or sister or any good Catholic that you trust and admire. It is not good to go it alone when you are searching. A wise, listening ear is often a big help in times of confusion, and a friend like this can help you grow in your faith.

Take a little time to pray each day. Give Jesus some of your quality time, even if it is only five or 10 minutes a day. Share your joys and concerns with Him to deepen your relationship. Ask Jesus to help your faith grow.

When it comes right down to it, your friendship and faithfulness to Jesus is what will sustain you during college and throughout your life. The Catholic Church is here to support you in being a good disciple.

Sister Margie Lavonis is a Sister of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame, Ind. Contact her at mlavonis@cscsisters.org.