Note: This is the lead article from the January issue of the DISCIPLE newsletter, online now.
In many U.S. parishes, young Catholics are confirmed in high-school and never look back. They are done with formation, rarely attend Mass, and may not even think about their faith again unless they decide to get married in the Church. They graduate from high school and head to college or start careers, explore their freedom, face challenges and make life-changing decisions without God’s grace and wisdom. They confront loss, tragedy and their own weaknesses without God’s strength and mercy.
It happens in our parish, too—but not with everyone. Those graduates who persist in the Catholic faith through high school and beyond can vouch for its value in the “real world.” But staying faithful in a broken world isn’t always easy.
‘You Really Have to Choose’
Even in a Catholic college environment, temptations abound. “The biggest challenge to my faith in college is the partying,” says Jack Gebert, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas and St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul. “The opportunities are numerous, and you really have to choose to not go to the parties and root yourself in the Newman Center or whatever outreach your college has for Catholic students.”
In a small college without a Catholic community, that choice can be even more challenging—and personal. Isaac Zipp is an alumnus of St. Cloud Technical and Community College, who stayed involved here at St. Michael to stay grounded in his faith. “The biggest challenge was the lack of good Christian community and friends,” Zipp says. “There were no Christian organizations at school. ... Due to a solid base, I was able to truly make my faith my own.”
This included leading a discipleship group (D-group) and staying connected to friends he served with on the Core Team in high school.
Managing unstructured time and competing priorities is another common struggle. “Balancing studying for my classes, spending time with friends, being a barista and making time for prayer has been a challenge,” says University of Wisconsin Madison senior Sophia Madore. “However, I think this is a challenge that happens throughout one’s life.”
Fellow college seniors Valerie Nagengast and Megan Kucera agree.
“Sometimes it can feel hard to maintain a strong prayer life when I am so busy with school,” says Nagengast. She attends Viterbo University in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.
“Sometimes my days get really busy, and I try to go to bed and realize, ‘Shoot! I didn’t pray!’” says Kucera, who attends Minnesota State University Moorhead. “Making time for prayer, even when it doesn’t seem fruitful, is extremely important!”
“If there’s no structure to your schedule, it’s so tough to make time for prayer and Mass when you also have studies, class and friendships to keep track of,” Gebert says. “Create a structure with faith events to keep you in line!”
Faithful to the Core
Not only how you spend your time in college, but who you spend it with, matters.
“St. Michael’s Core Team was a great group to be a part of in middle school and high school. I recommend creating your own ‘core team’ when you get to college!” Nagengast says. “Having a group of friends who can attend Mass with you, go on retreats, and can be prayer partners with you is a huge help in keeping your faith alive in college.”
“It is easy to surround yourself with worldly things in college, but sticking close with faithful people has been extremely helpful,” says Kucera. “Go to Newman events, or any Catholic events, as often as you can.”
Madore agrees: “Get involved—jump right in! Join a bible study, go on a service trip or study in the gathering space at the church. I have met some of my best friends in the St. Paul’s Catholic Center. My friends have and still are inspiring me to continue to strive for Jesus. Having friends that share a desire to learn about Jesus has helped and will continue to help me live out my faith.”
“If you’re around Catholic events enough, you’re bound to find a solid group of people,” Gebert says. “Try to find connections before you even go to college. It was so important to me to have a few upperclassmen involved in on-campus activities to get me involved.”
Keys to the Kingdom
All five STMA grads agree that staying connected to God through regular prayer and the sacraments has been key to their college success. “Confession, Confession, Confession!” says Zipp. “This great sacrament was truly my saving grace through college.”
“Attending daily Mass and Adoration keeps me sane and connects me to other striving Catholics,” Kucera says. “Set aside time for Adoration at least once a week—my campus has Adoration on Mondays, and I have found that it helps me to start off the week with some quality time with the Lord.”
“I am also fortunate enough to have a few close friends in college who are also Catholic. We pray with and for each other as well as attend Mass together each week,” says Nagengast. “My Catholic faith has helped me in college by keeping my eyes on what is important. There can be a lot of stressors and unknowns in college, but trusting in God has helped keep me grounded and overcome obstacles.”
“Staying close to God in these ways helps us to see His hand guiding our lives,” says Madore.
“Whether I am studying for a test, working at my job or hanging out with my friends—everything in my life is a gift that points back to God and His love for me,” she says. “Because of this, my heart can be at peace that He has a beautiful plan for my life now at college and has many surprises for me in the future.”
What’s a Newman Center?
From the Newman Connection website: “Newman Centers are residence and Catholic ministry centers at non-Catholic universities throughout the world. These centers provide pastoral services and ministries to their Catholic communities, in particular to the Roman Catholic student population within universities throughout the world. Newman Centers were named in honor of Cardinal John Henry Newman and were inspired by Newman’s writings.” Learn more and find Catholic resources on your campus at newmanconnection.com.