Can you keep your faith in college?
In a new book, a Harvard graduate tells how she stayed Catholic while attending one of America’s most prestigious universities.
By Daria Sockey
Catholic colleges offer plenty of on-campus resources for students to practice their faith: daily Masses, frequent opportunities for confession, and easily accessible clergy and religious. But what if you’re a student attending a college that has no affiliation with the Church? What can you do to maintain your faith while not giving in to temptations?
In a new book, How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students (Ignatius Press, 2016), author Aurora Griffin tells readers about her collegiate experience and offers guidance to students.
Griffin, who graduated from Harvard University in 2014 and received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University where she earned a graduate degree in theology, spoke with Catholic Digest.
Someone I know recently posted on Facebook: “College tuition: a ton of money that you pay to have your dear child stripped of every shred of morality and faith you raised them to believe.” Her remark had plenty of “likes.”
Sadly, at many secular universities — and even at Catholic schools — this is the case. However, keeping your faith is possible no matter where you go to school — hence How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard. Wherever you go, you have to make the decision to take ownership of your faith for yourself: Your parents can’t do it for you. If you commit yourself to your faith, there is an enormous amount of grace available and a wealth of resources to help you practice the faith. No one can take your faith away. It’s your responsibility. Your choice!
What is the greatest challenge facing faithful Catholics on college campuses?
The temptations for Catholics fall broadly into three categories: social, intellectual, and spiritual. The social challenge is the party scene: How does a Christian witness to her faith in a situation where people are binge drinking, doing drugs, and hooking up? As faithful Catholics we have to avoid sinful behavior and near occasions of sin. This means avoiding situations where these behaviors appear as options. I found that by making the right kind of friends, the party scene simply was not a regular part of my college experience. If you do make a mistake, you can pick yourself up again by going to confession and starting over.
Next, the intellectual challenges. Everybody imagines that arrogant professor who denounces Christianity in class. That never happened to me — not in my four years at Harvard or two years at Oxford. However, here are three “don’ts” for Catholics at secular schools. First, don’t try to win a public debate with professors when egos are at stake during lectures. Instead, go see them during office hours and have a private conversation about your differences. Second, don’t argue with professors through essays that might jeopardize your grade. And third, don’t worry if you can’t answer a challenge off the top of your head. The Church has an intellectual tradition from which you can draw; look it up! For every challenge to the faith, some brilliant theologian (most likely Thomas Aquinas) has written about it. Tell your interlocutor that you’ll get back to him — then research it online or call the apologetics organization Catholic Answers (619-387-7200, Catholic.com).
Finally, there are the spiritual challenges — for me these were the greatest. Christ tells us, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). In college there are so many goods competing for your time: new friends, new ideas, new activities. We must remember that these things can never truly fulfill us. Academic success, friendships, or resume builders can never compete with that God-shaped hole we have in our hearts. College will make you feel like you don’t have time for God, but that’s never true. Make an effort to place him first — make time and space in your heart for worship. Only God can truly make us happy and free.
You give 40 “tips” to help students strengthen their faith. Which are the most important ones?
The most important ones are actually in the introduction: Mass, confession, and fasting (the minimum requirements for staying Catholic, and the things we can invest in first if we want to grow in our faith). Daily Mass and weekly confession are the greatest tools we have to become saints, and I know many Catholics who grew in their faith at Harvard by availing themselves of these sacraments.
Your book is about maintaining faith at a secular school. Might it be even harder to resist temptations at a Catholic college?
In some ways, I think I had an easier time staying Catholic at Harvard than I would have at a Catholic school. The Catholics at Harvard are not “going with the flow;” they have to be intentional about their faith. I met my closest friends at daily Mass. Though we often had little else in common, we became like a family, coming together for Mass and breakfast every morning. Whether you are at a Catholic or a secular school, it’s a great way to meet people who are serious about their faith. No matter what school you attend, the Eucharist can, and should, be that anchor for your soul.