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Stay Catholic at a Non-Catholic University
College Students, Recent Graduates and Campus Ministers Offer Practical Advice
By Jacqueline Burkepile
In his address to youth at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, Pope John Paul the Great said, "Dear young people, let yourselves be taken over by the light of Christ, and spread that light wherever you are."
Young Catholics at universities throughout the country extend this light by answering questions concerning the Catholic faith in Protestant and secular environments. Students from Baylor, Duke, Texas A&M and the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) explained to the Register how they keep the faith in college.
At Duke University, just-graduated senior Amy Wigger said that faith was her priority, especially attending Sunday Mass. She tried to attend one daily Mass per week, maintained a daily prayer life and used resources the Duke Catholic Center had to offer.
"Making friends in the Catholic Center has proven an invaluable resource for my faith," said Wigger. "Having friends with whom to discuss my faith allowed me to grow in faith and holiness, in ways that have been both unexpected and beautiful."
Wigger added that peers regularly challenged her faith, but she considered these encounters as growing opportunities.
"Instead of looking at this as a bad thing, I try to welcome such challenges as opportunities to engage with my faith in a constructive manner," said Wigger. "It forces me to take my faith seriously and spend time learning how to defend it."
Marcel LeJeune, assistant director of campus ministry at Texas A&M, said the greatest test of faith he sees is the culture’s attack on young people.
"Our youth are taught relativism and utilitarianism on a broad scale," said LeJeune. "Too many Catholic leaders and parents let the culture have the upper hand. We need a renewal of evangelization and formation of disciples in our families and parishes."
St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M in College Station is home to one of the largest campus ministries in the country. Several students from St. Mary’s explained how they remain strong in faith at a public university.
Texas A&M’s newly graduated Troy Menendez said daily prayer was most important.
"Prayer is central to our lives as Catholics and must form the center of any spirituality," he said.
Menendez stressed that the Catholic community at St. Mary’s helped keep him grounded.
"Having a vibrant community challenged and encouraged me to continually seek after holiness in everything that I do," he added.
Katie Smith, also a new graduate of Texas A&M, said her greatest challenge occurred when the faith was rejected or frowned upon in the classroom.
"If my faith was challenged in the classroom, occasionally I raised my hand and spoke about my own beliefs," said Smith. "However, if the professor did not always welcome the Catholic opinion, I remained silent and looked up the Catholic teachings that were challenged in order to reinforce my own beliefs."
Father Paul Rospond, campus minister at UCLA, said many students discover they are in an atmosphere where faith is not taken for granted. He said the ultimate challenge is developing a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith and learning to be a witness in a secular environment.
"Through our preaching, spiritual direction and mentoring, we campus ministers have the amazing opportunity to address a word of faith to our young adults as they discern who they are, what they believe and how to grow in relationship with friends, family and God," said Father Rospond.
Kaitlin Collins, a M.A./Ph.D. student in Hispanic linguistics at UCLA, is a student leader at the University Catholic Center. She said ignorance is the greatest trial she faces, but she also considers it as an opportunity to grow in faith.
"I am proud of my faith and where I come from; it’s just hard because I feel as if I am always explaining myself," said Collins. "If someone stumps me with a question or accusation about the faith, it is ample opportunity for investigation."
Father Daniel Liu, chaplain and director at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said students at the Protestant university face many of the same challenges as those at secular universities.
"Alcohol, drugs and sex are all common temptations here, as anywhere else. There are also the academic and social pressures," said Father Liu.
Father Liu said students are tempted to join Protestant ministries but blessed because they are welcome to speak of God openly.
Meredith Hale, who just completed her junior year at Baylor, said the Christian atmosphere strengthens her faith.
"I enjoy being able to interact with Christians of all different denominations and share our common faith in the Trinity," said Hale. "Learning about our differences and choosing that fullness of truth for me, in communion with the Catholic Church, wouldn’t be the same anywhere else."
Alex Scheibner, who just earned a master’s degree from Baylor, converted to Catholicism in college. He said his faith is challenged by his peers, but almost always in a charitable and loving fashion.
"This provides an excellent opportunity to educate our Protestant brothers and sisters about the Catholic faith and challenge them to re-examine what they believe about Catholicism," said Scheibner. "As one who converted to Catholicism during college and coming from a Protestant background, I can attest to God’s ability to use Catholic students for his glory."
In terms of encouraging those struggling with faith in college, he suggests that students examine the sources of meaning and purpose in their lives.
"I am confident that they will discover the emptiness and lack of fulfillment found in a life focused on secular achievement," said Scheibner. "Growing to love and be loved by God, and allowing that love to spill into all other areas of life, is the only path to true happiness and fulfillment in life. It may be difficult to accept at times, but God really is the only thing in our lives that is forever."
Matt Swaim, producer of EWTN Radio’s Son Rise Morning Show and co-author of the new publication Your College Faith: Own It!, also encouraged students to keep their faith strong.
"Stay connected with the sacraments. Read books that ground you. Find someone older than you who has asked the same hard questions you have and still came to the conclusion that the Church is the sanest place to be," said Swaim. "If you use this time as an opportunity for radical personal growth, you’ll look back on your college years with increasing gratitude as you progress in your adult life."
Jacqueline Burkepile writes from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
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