I wrote my book, How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard, for the next generation of Catholic students coming up through the ranks at secular schools. In the past year since it came out, however, I have received some of the most enthusiastic feedback and sincere questions from parents who were worried about their children losing their faith in college.

I am not a parent, so I hesitate to give advice to parents in the same way that I offer it to students from my own experience. However, I can identify what my parents did to help me keep my faith at a secular school.

 

1. My dad catechized me himself

When I was little, my dad was not comfortable with the options we had for local religious formation. So he taught my brother and me from the Baltimore Catechism. (I suspect it was this one.) I was not yet in kindergarten, but I could tell you why God made me: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.” I did not know what this meant at the time, but it provided me with great stability years later when my peers in my Existentialism class at Harvard were in crisis about the meaning of life.

My dad also taught us from the Bible. It was an illustrated, abridged version, but it did not omit the difficult stories, like the one about Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11:30-39). Jephthah promised to sacrifice the first thing he saw when he got home if God granted him victory in battle over the Ammonites. It was granted, and the first thing Jephthah saw when he arrived was his beloved daughter running toward him. He wept, and she offered herself for slaughter, asking only for two months in the mountains with her friends to grieve and prepare. This passage continues to be difficult for me to understand. As a child, it seemed impossible. Instead of hiding from it and trying to bring the stories down to my level, my dad encouraged me to believe in Truth that went beyond what I could understand. Later on, when professors or fellow students raised objections that I could not answer in college, I did not lose my faith.

Finally, when it became time for me to go to middle school, I wanted to enroll at Oaks Christian, which was Protestant. Although we didn’t always align with the school theologically, we did agree about our core values. This was more than could be said for the local Catholic schools. To prepare me, my dad supplemented my formation with apologetics training, a lot of it from Catholic Answers, so that when I was challenged about the Real Presence, or Mary, or the Communion of Saints, I had answers. That came in handy when a friend in the Protestant fellowship at Harvard told me that she feared for my salvation as a Catholic with my pagan beliefs. Instead of being threatened or offended, I whipped out my apologetics training and addressed her concerns point by point.

 

2. My parents have a stable and loving marriage

My parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary last summer. Our family has our struggles, just like everyone else, but I have never doubted the stability of my parents’ commitment to each other. I did not realize what a blessing that was until I went to college and met people for whom that was not the case. One of the key lessons that parents teach their children is how to love and be loved, unconditionally. The Church calls the family a “school of deeper humanity” (Gaudium et Spes 52) or more colloquially, a “school of love.”

Of course, there are many reasons why someone might not have been raised by their parents. In these cases, there are ways that parents can heroically witness to unconditional love and the permanence of the Sacrament of marriage in very difficult situations. I’ve seen people do this is by staying single after divorce, by remaining faithful to a spouse who is unfaithful, and by bearing the loss of a spouse with supernatural hope.

All of that to say, I would not prescribe this as a “tip” for keeping your kids Catholic in college since family dynamics vary so wildly. But I can attest to what a blessing it has been to come from a stable family structure.

 

3. Our family went to Mass on Sunday, no matter what

Growing up, my brother and I were equestrian show jumpers. On the weekends, we were often at horse shows in other cities, which some would say qualified us for a “traveler’s dispensation” from our Sunday Mass obligation. My family never took the easy way out, though: we went to Mass on Sunday, even if it meant missing a competition. More often, it meant moving around our position in the line-up, maybe going disadvantageously early or coming back from Mass and doing our rounds after. My parents would explain that it was because we wanted to get to church, which was a good witness for others.

In college, a lot of students have trouble getting to Mass on Sundays because of the weekend social schedule. They’re already be out and about during the Saturday night vigil Mass, up late and sleeping in Sunday morning, and trying to catch up on homework Sunday night before the week started. If they aren’t careful, it is easy to make excuses not to go. Because I had been raised with the idea that attending Mass was not optional, I always found a way to get there.

These three were the most important things my parents did to help me keep my faith in college. But no matter how good your intentions or firm your resolve, you can’t make someone else Catholic. Your kids could be raised by saints, as St. Augustine was by St. Monica, and turn away from their faith. Ultimately, each of us has to exercise his God-given freedom and make his own decision to take up his cross and follow Christ. It’s a choice we have to make again and again throughout our lives. The best thing you can do to help your children stay Catholic is to give your own life fully to Christ.

If you do, and you live in the sacraments, grace will overflow from your life and touch everyone around you, including your children. That’s the supernatural benefit. There’s also a natural benefit. Children value authenticity. When you tell your kids not to smoke, and then sneak outside for a cigarette, they internalize it. When you say that your faith is important to you, you have to live a life that backs it up. There is nothing more compelling, on a human level, than the witness of a saint.

So how do you keep your kids Catholic in college? Be the saint that you were meant to be. It’s the simple formula that the Church has held throughout the ages and the narrow path on which we all must begin again every day.