In marked contrast to a trend that took off in the 1960s, many college students are clamoring to experience the intellectual and spiritual traditions that were once the hallmark of the Catholic campus.
The trend, while perhaps still in its early stages, runs counter to the widely held assumption that religious identity at most Catholic colleges is slated for permanent decline.
“When I came here 10 years ago, there wasn't a lot of this going on,” said Jesuit Father Richard Cleary, a chaplain at Boston College. Now, he said, more and more students are enrolling in religion courses and taking part in retreats.
Admissions counselors have been aware of the shift for several years. They have taken to frequently adding the word Catholic or the name of their college's founding religious order to advertising and promotional materials.
The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for example, has reported an increase in the number of students who make a specific, positive reference to the school's Catholic identity in their applications.
Nationals statistics bear this out. A 1998 survey of a million college-bound high school seniors carried out by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions found that 32% of those who wanted to attend a denominational college wanted one that is Catholic. This was a rise from the 26% that was reported a few years earlier.
In a story on these promotional activities that appeared earlier this year, Michael McKeon, dean of admissions at the Jesuits’ Seattle University, told the Register: “Catholic values are part of the lore and Zeitgeist of the '90s. They also are being perceived as marketable.”
Father Stephen Happel, a diocesan priest and director of Catholic ministry at Catholic University, recalled that “20 years ago, our students' spiritual journey leaned more toward the teachings of Eastern religions.”
In fact, more than embracing other religious traditions, the trend back then — often encouraged by school administrations — was more in favor of secularization, which many argued was necessary in order for Catholic colleges to be taken seriously by the larger academic establishment. This also seemed to fit the tenor of the times, which favored pluralism, diversity and openness to a variety of worldviews.
It was also the dawn of ecumenism, which prompted many Catholic educators to play down Church doctrines that were not shared by other religions, especially other Christians.
Chaplains and theology professors often filled the vacuum by encouraging community service, and opted for experimental liturgies and a relativized view of Church teachings as a way to make religion more palatable to a new generation of Catholics — tendencies which persist in many places.
“Many students entering college are in accord with papal teachings,” said Patrick Reilly, executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society in Falls Church, Va., a group that actively promotes stronger religious identity. “But for some, by the time they graduate, these teachings have been co-opted by campus ministries that oppose traditional forms of the Mass and other approved forms of devotion.”
Many of those interviewed for this article reported that the burgeoning religious interest of young Catholics is of a decidedly traditional bent. There is an emphasis on personal spirituality and the aspects of Catholic life, like the sacraments, that are intrinsic to the faith and set it apart from other creeds.
Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is perhaps a leading indicator of the trend. The college renewed its Catholic identity in the 1970s by embracing the charismatic renewal. While the renewal is still a central part of the college's life and spirituality, campus ministers report that the current crop of Steubenville undergraduates are more likely to be drawn to traditional faith practices and spirituality.
Campus groups are dedicated to Marian spirituality, eucharistic adoration and the pro-life movement. Each month, there is a sung Vatican II Mass in Latin, and students flock to solemn vespers and Benediction services that are conducted with the assistance of a student singing group that specializes in Gregorian chant.
Catholic University's Father Happel observed that the students on his campus, while not completely rejecting American culture, have become more critical of it and are “looking for something to anchor all that. They take religion courses and interact with peers and clergy to develop real Catholic values and [to] become genuinely virtuous.”
While programs and courses vary, the renewed popularity of specifically Catholic courses and religious activities is unquestioned.
Senior Kevin Broeckling enrolled at Quincy University in Illinois because of its Catholic and Franciscan environment. “Being at Quincy helped open doors for me in terms of understanding myself and my faith better,” said Broeckling, who regularly attends “traditional” devotions in addition to Mass.
A taste for “spirituality and devotions” led Heather Ramsdell to choose the Irish Christian Brothers' Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. Natalie Santillana, a senior, had a similar experience. “I was a regular churchgoer, but Iona made me stronger,” she said. “I learned to put my faith into practice and to appreciate more fully the sacraments instituted by Jesus.”
Ignatian prayer techniques have become popular at Loyola College of Baltimore, said Mickey Fenzel, assistant vice president for student development. Students “embrace it in leadership and in retreat programs, as well as in their private prayer life,” Fenzel said.
Conversions to Catholicism
At the Ursuline Sisters' College of New Rochelle in New York, many non-Catholics have entered the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults “because they see how devoted our students are to the sacraments, especially at Mass,” said Mary Naughton, director of campus ministry.
Even larger Catholic colleges, which tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse, have Catholic student populations that seem more outwardly religious than in the past.
“For the 1998-1999 school year, [non-required religion courses] were third-highest in terms of attendance,” said Robert Newton, associate academic vice president at Boston College. He added that students also make religion, philosophy and theology courses part of an interdisciplinary program. “We have computer science majors who minor in philosophy or theology, because they want to learn more” about their faith, he said.
Catholic University has “a very strong collection of books on the history of the Church in America and it is popular with students,” said Adele Chwalek, head of the university's library system. “These kids have a pride about their faith and want to return to former values, including religion.” Conversions are up, she said, because non-Catholic students “see our sacramental practices and devotions and realize they can't get these in other churches.”
And in Secular Schools …
Catholic renewal is also going on through the Church's presence at secular universities.
Eve Christman, a baptized Catholic who had become a Methodist in high school, returned to the Catholic faith through the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana's Newman Center, known for its evangelization successes and its adhesion to Catholic orthodoxy.
A turning point occurred when she accompanied a friend to Mass at St. John's Chapel on the campus and was immediately drawn to the stained glass windows and the large crucifix. “I looked to one side and saw the statue of Mary. She was beautiful, and I felt like I was home.”
Her transformation was also helped by sound instruction. Said Christman: “I didn't know what I was missing until it was re-explained to me.”
Jim Malerba is based in North Haven, Connecticut.