One of the most beautiful yet heartbreaking parts of working in college campus ministry is accompanying students when they hit a rock bottom. They have lost joy, hope and a sense of purpose. Their identity is deeply wounded. Their values have shifted radically. “How did I get here?” they ask.
Melodramatic as this may seem, interactions like this are common. Frankly, these are the real consequences of walking away from the practice of the Faith.
Most college students face a two-pronged challenge regarding their faith. On the one hand, most of their peers have already left organized religion. On the other hand, most campus cultures are not conducive to practicing the Catholic faith.
For the college student on the fence about their faith, it could not be easier and more socially acceptable to walk away. For those who are seeking to live their faith, it is rather perilous.
When a new student moves onto campus, those first few weeks are simultaneously some of the most exciting and difficult weeks of his or her life. They live and study with thousands of young people trying to figure out how to handle having greater independence, living in a dorm, encountering new ideas, and exploring the endless social options.
For students returning to campus, figuring out how to balance school with a social life, professional development, clubs, work and leisure is not easy. On top of that, upperclassmen are invited to take on leadership roles in their various groups and clubs. Time management, to put it mildly, is often a weakness for college students.
Sin and unhealthy relationships
There are also other impediments to keeping one’s faith simply by being on a college campus.
Increasingly, young people are struggling with their mental health and well-being and the feelings of isolation and loneliness. For many, the anxiety and fear of going to a new place keep them from attending Mass or joining the Catholic community on campus.
If that is not enough, there can be real hatred for the Catholic Church and her beliefs.
At the same time, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the two biggest challenges to practicing the Faith in college are sin and unhealthy relationships, which actively lead us away from happiness.
When a student comes to our Newman Center after getting spiritually, emotionally and morally lost on campus and asks, “How did I get here?,” the answer is unique to their experience, but almost always includes sin and unhealthy relationships.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience” (No. 1849). Sin, consequently, changes the way we think and look at the world. When our relationships are conducive to sin and do not challenge us to be holy, the destruction is all the more destructive. As St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Do not be led astray:’Bad company corrupts good morals'” (15:33).
When we lead a life of sin and have unhealthy relationships, it becomes doubly hard to turn back to God because we must work on virtue while building new, healthy relationships. For many, the thought of having to change their behaviors is hard enough; to find new friends while doing so is horrifying.
As the new school year begins, here are some tips for college students on how to keep their faith this school year (or, for those on their way back to the Faith, tips for how to take the next steps in coming home) and to become what you were made to be: saints.
Get involved with the Catholic community
If you do nothing else this school year, get involved with the Catholics on your campus. I do not mean to join the group chat or fill out a registration card, though that may be the start. I mean commit to something. Join a Bible study and be the person who always shows up. Go to the socials. Join the student association. Live at the Newman Center. Do whatever it takes to ensure you have a Catholic community.
College is hard. You will make mistakes. You will be confused. You will feel lonely. You need a community of people who love you, who support you, and who, regardless of the circumstances, desire your good.
Develop your spiritual battleplan
The Christian life can be boiled down to two things: grace and virtue. God gives us grace so that we can make the right decisions and live a life of virtue.
Grace is primarily provided through the sacraments and prayer. As someone who likes to keep it simple, my suggestion for an initial battleplan is this: daily prayer (at least 15 minutes), weekly Mass, monthly confession.
Virtue will flow from this, but a good place to start for virtue is sobriety and chastity. We simply cannot progress in the spiritual and moral life without these virtues.
Put this in writing. Ask a friend to hold you accountable. You can do it.
Learn about the Faith
During college, you will encounter all sorts of new ideas and information. Spend time expanding and deepening your knowledge of the Faith. Read a classic like St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” Read a contemporary masterpiece like Father Jacques Philippe’s “Searching for and Maintaining Peace.” Talk with your priest about the big questions you have or that have arisen during the course of your studies.
Build virtuous friendships
During my own time in college, I struggled with many sins and unhealthy relationships. Thanks be to God I had a few friends who called me higher and who challenged me to follow Jesus more closely and turn from sin. If it weren’t for them, I have no idea where I would be.
We need a community of Catholics, to be sure, but, even more so, we need some friends with whom we can have mutual vulnerability and an intimacy rooted in the love of God. We need these friends to learn how to love and to be loved. Jesus himself had many disciples and 12 Apostles, but even he had an inner circle of Peter, James and John.
Remember who and whose you are
The world will tell you many lies about who you are. You will even tell yourself some lies about who you are. But to God, you are always his beloved. To quote the first paragraph of the Catechism, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” You are mad for holiness, for greatness, for happiness.
It does not matter where you are (or even how you got there). God loves you. God beckons. Take courage. Get up. Jesus is calling you.