“There’s no way you’ll keep going to Church.” Someone said this to me weeks before moving into my freshman year of college in the summer of 2013. Now, I can definitely be sassy at times, so my quick response to this person ended up being: “Watch me.”
I was taken aback by the confidence this person had in his comment and by his disbelief in my response. He was so sure that my new independence meant that I would be free from this pressure to “keep the faith.” I understand why he must have thought that though. I could basically do whatever I wanted, so why would I stick with a way of living that would demand so much from me?
What I realized was that this world has a lot of misconceptions about what true freedom actually entails. It comes with an immense amount of responsibility. St. John Paul II said, “The greatest deception, and the deepest source of unhappiness, is the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility.” I chose to be intentional about inviting God into my college experience, not separating Him from it. To see college as an invitation to really take responsibility for my faith and claim it as my own. Not of my parents. Mine. I tried to see my time in college as an opportunity to dive more deeply into the truths of the Church, which took a lot of questioning, seeking answers, and praying about them. I was not perfect by any means. In fact, I failed A LOT. Truth is sometimes my faith does demand great things FROM me and it’s a struggle. However, I continue to try because I trust and know that God wants even greater things FOR me.
This past summer, I’ve had a lot of conversations with teens who are about to start their first year of college and enter into the world of young adulthood. A topic that always comes up is how do you keep your faith strong in college? I know that I had that same desire in my heart before starting, but it still was a concern for me. I thought that maybe I could share some things that helped me and some of my friends.
Prioritize Your Time With God
I know that college comes with so many distractions that monopolize our time. There are always tests to study for, papers to write, sports practices, friends to see, etc. It can be exhausting. I know when I was in school and people would ask how I was doing, I’d always answer with “busy” or “tired.” I’d often justify not spending time in prayer or be tempted to skip out on mass due to being anxious about getting everything done or, honestly, just wanting to take a nap. Don’t use it as an excuse to not spend time with Jesus. You are solely responsible for what you prioritize. Mass isn’t just another stressful thing to accomplish on your to do list. Mass is a beautiful opportunity to meet Christ in the chaos of college and to center the day or week on Him. If you don’t go to a Catholic college, it will probably take more effort and time to get to mass. If you don’t have a car and the church isn’t within walking distance, see if you can connect with other students who go. We live in an awesome era of technology where you can probably find someone in your college message boards that could probably help you get there--and what a great way to possibly make new friends. If you have the blessing of having a chapel on campus, I found it helpful to try to stop in at least once a day. I tried to take a few minutes before my first class or after my last class of the day to visit Jesus in the chapel. And remember, you don’t have to travel anywhere to spend time with Jesus. Sometimes I’d say a quick prayer walking from one class to another, instead of listening to music. Make opportunities for prayer whenever you can.
Find a Good Community and Surround Yourself with Good Friends
When I was touring college campuses, I was always intentional to ask about their campus ministry opportunities or to look into what the surrounding area had to offer. Community can greatly shape our experience. Get involved in your campus ministry or campus’ Newman Center, if they have one. If you go to a campus that doesn’t, try to find the nearest church in the area and try to get plugged into that parish community. Also, find ways to serve your community. I loved being an Extraordinary Minister on campus. Maybe you’d love reading at mass, being involved with the music, organizing outings or service opportunities. Take a step out of your comfort zone and get involved!
It’s awesome when you can find people who are also striving to live out their faith in college. Don’t become discouraged or impatient if you haven’t found your best friend immediately. Sometimes all it takes is for you to keep showing up and actively participate in trying to find that connection with others. Freshman year, everyone is trying to figure each other out. Sometimes being patient with making friends can keep you from making the wrong friends. Trust me, it is worth it to wait for those friends that genuinely care about you and for your good. I also wanted to clarify that not all of your friends have to be Catholic/Christian. I had a great community of friends in college in which we all came from various backgrounds and believed in different things. However, the key to this is that we always respected each other and they never put me in a compromising position. They never made fun of me for or discouraged me from trying to live out my faith. Find those encouraging and loving friends that support your relationship with God.
Don’t Be Afraid of Being Challenged and Challenging Others
Do not be afraid to be challenged by others or by your own self. The amount of times that someone has told me that Catholics blindly follow rules that we’re not allowed to question is unending. Having questions is so important. In fact, I think one of the greatest disservices that you can do to your spiritual life is to not ask questions and, even more so, to not dig deep for those answers. It is one of the most important ways to take responsibility for your faith. When other people challenge you about your faith, trust me, it is a good thing. In college, it could be from a professor or another student. It is an opportunity to share our faith and have that interaction enlighten us about the areas in which our understanding may need to be strengthened. Do your research. Lean on the input from people that you trust and have knowledge in the field your questioning. And if you feel unsettled with an answer that you’ve received, don’t sit in your frustration. Bring it to prayer and then dig into the question of “why” you’re feeling so unsettled. We aren’t meant to blindly follow anything. We are supposed to follow that conviction in our hearts to seek and know the Truth.
With that same conviction, be a bold witness! As Pope Benedict XVI said, “Tell others about the truth that sets you free.” You are going to encounter a ton of temptations and people from various backgrounds in college. Sometimes you may need to defend misunderstandings of your faith or be in situations that will call you to say “no.” Sometimes it won’t make you the most “fun” person or most “popular.” Living this faith calls you to act in a way that’s counter-cultural. Share the Truth with compassion, humility, and charity. College is a time where everyone is trying to find a place where they are accepted and cared for in many of the wrong places--show them that they belong to Christ and are deeply loved by Him. Let them encounter Christ through your words and actions.
Remember Your Identity
In college, you will hear so many voices trying to tell you who you should be. You need to know that your identity is not in the amount of friends you have, your grades, your sport, your club, your major, or any bad decision that you’ve made. You are first and foremost God’s Beloved Daughter or Son. There is nothing that you could do that would make Him love you any less. Let that be your foundation from which all your actions and beliefs take root in. He is for you, not against. He wants you to thrive in your college years, not just survive.
College is a great opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself. Invite Christ into your struggles and into your accomplishments. Let Him be your strength and guidance. Open yourself up to the amazing things He wants to do in your life!