How to help our college-age children keep the faith

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I didn’t notice him come in. The college snack bar was noisy that day and full of students like me wanting ice cream on a very warm October afternoon. My chemistry class was in an hour and I sipped my milkshake while perusing my notes from the last lecture, wondering why these basic chemical equations were so baffling to me.

Suddenly I was pulled from my frustration by the sound of someone shouting “Alleluia!” I looked up to see a bearded young man with very long dark hair on the other side of the café standing on a chair, clapping his hands high in the air, his head waving from side to side, his eyes closed as if in ecstasy. It wasn’t his long hair and beard that made him seem out of place on college campus — this was 1971 after all — it was his clean white robe and sandals.

“Praise the Lord!” he shouted. Then he sang a few more rousing alleluias and started telling us about his lord — someone named Brother Julius — a locally grown messiah whom I had never heard of, but whom, I later learned, had recently proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Jesus the Christ and had hundreds of followers. “Brother Julius is the only path to salvation,” the man shouted. “Believe in Julius and be saved!”

The man sang Julius’ praises for the next 10 minutes while I tried to concentrate on my notes and my milkshake. Then he stopped and the regular noise level of the crowd resumed. I was closing my notebook when I heard the chair on the other side of my table being pulled out. I looked up — and into the eyes of Brother Julius’ disciple. Why do they always find me?

“Do you know about Brother Julius?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, “just what you said.”

“Brother Julius is the savior of the world,” he said.

“OK,” I said. “I gotta go.”

“Let me tell you about him!”

I don’t remember all the details. It didn’t make a lot of sense. There was a lot about Julius having the power of God and working miracles, and how he was Jesus reborn, and that, like Jesus, Julius would be martyred but would come down off the cross to save mankind.

“OK,” I said. “I’ve got to get to class.”

But the disciple wasn’t quite through with me. With his eyes shining he reached across the table and put his finger near my forehead. “And when the devil comes and traces 666 on you,” he said, tracing the numbers in the air, “only Julius will be able to save you.”

OK, then.

Julius was perhaps the most dramatic challenge to my faith that freshman year, but he wasn’t the most serious. That award goes to college life itself — being away from home, being flooded with new ideas and newfound independence, and having the residents of my dorm — many of whom were Catholic with 12 years of Catholic education behind them — scorning and ridiculing anyone still childish enough to go to Sunday Mass.

When I look back on that freshman year and the quiet, shy kid I was, I sometimes marvel that I came through it still a practicing Catholic. And I wonder what my parents thought of all this as I described it in the letters I’d send home.

All this comes back to me every year about this time, as lots of parents I know get ready to send their kids off to college. College is a new experience for so many of these kids, and even we parents who have done our best to provide a strong Catholic foundation end up anxiously wondering if our kids will keep the values we’ve tried to teach them, or continue going to Mass, or if they’ll give up their faith. The cult of Brother Julius may not be as strong as it once was, but even on Catholic campuses, other forces — apathy, confusion, the widespread idea that one opinion is as good as any other, immaturity, peer pressure, hormones, and Jack Daniels and his friends — stand ready to evangelize. Overall, there are plenty of worries here that can keep a parent awake at night.

How can we parents deal with this anxiety? Is there anything we can do to help our away-at-school kids stay strong in the faith?

I decided to ask two friends who have more experience in this than I: Margaret Palliser, OP, a Sparkill Dominican Sister and the editor of our sister publication Living with Christ: Your Daily Companion for Praying and Living the Eucharist, and Kerry Weber, a former associate editor of Catholic Digest and author of Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students.

Four Crucial Guidelines

I asked Sister Margaret, especially, because of her experience in a college setting. Before coming to Living with Christ, Sister Margaret spent 15 years at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, including five years as its director of campus ministry and 10 years as director of the university’s Center for Mission Education and Reflection. When I asked her about what parents can do to help their kid’s faith as they go off to college, she offered the following four thoughts.

1. Remember: asserting independence is their “job.”
Sister Margaret began by reminding me that one of the tasks of a college-age young adult is to assert his or her independence from parents. “Since they usually can’t do that financially,” she said, “one of their favorite ways is to assert their independence from the parents’ religious identity.” They know, even unconsciously, that it’s a sure way to get their parents’ attention. But it doesn’t always mean that the child is abandoning the faith for good: “It’s often more about their asserting that they are now going to make their own decisions.”

2. The best way for parents to nurture their college-age children’s faith is for the parents to live their own faith with integrity.
“The parents’ faithfulness to their values is a must!” Sister Margaret told me. “College students are all about testing their values against new (perhaps never-before-encountered) models and challenges. They look to their parents as solid models against which to measure other models. It takes young people a while to come to their own conclusions about values, so parents must be patient. If parents seem to waver in their own faith/values, the child will conclude that his or her parents’ faith/values were not really solid to begin with. And you can be sure that the child is watching carefully for the parents’ reactions to the child’s challenges! If the child sees that a parent’s faith is not shaken and is a source of strength, that is a lesson that doesn’t go unnoticed (even if unacknowledged!).”

3. Listen to and talk with your child, but don’t back down.
“The child wants you to value and respect him or her, not necessarily his or her ideas,” Sister Margaret told me. “Be willing to listen with real attention to the child’s point of view, but do not back down from your own principles. The child really does expect (and want!) you to hold on to your values! If you don’t, they get very confused, if not shattered!”

4. Prayer is the parents’ best companion.
“Give God the benefit of the doubt!” says Sister Margaret. “God knows your child through and through. Just as God has been there for you in times of questioning, God will be there for your child and is well able to deal with your child’s questions or failures.” Of course, she added, “God’s timing is not always — or even usually — our timing. God has much more patience than we will ever have. Let God speak to your child in a way that is perfectly ‘tuned’ to him or her. God’s voice is much more persuasive than a parent’s harangue.”

“It’s easy to give advice I myself don’t have to follow,” Sister Margaret added. “I stand in awe of parents and their courage and love.”

Eight more ways to help your away-at-college child stay connected to our faith

Sister Margaret filled in the big picture. Kerry Weber offered more specific suggestions of what parents can do.

As I mentioned, Weber is the author of Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students, which was recently published by Twenty-Third Publications. In Keeping the Faith she offers contemporary, original prayers (but includes some of the traditional Catholic standards as well) covering a wide range of real situations in a student’s life, everything from expressing gratitude for a good roommate to dealing with homesickness, a crisis in faith, resisting peer pressure, discerning a career, facing academic pressure, and much more. It’s a small, powerful book meant to be prayed by the student — but even more, to help spark a student’s own prayer life, to give them words and inspiration to help them speak with God in their own words about what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Giving a copy to your child would be a great way to help keep him or her connected to the faith.

That’s my first suggestion and recommendation. Weber added seven more:

  • Encourage your child to introduce himself or herself to others after Mass or to attend after-Mass events in an effort to meet people who may be interested in attending Mass together in the future.
  • Encourage your child to inquire about the different types of Masses at their college. Colleges often have guitar Masses that are especially crowded and it can be a good way to meet people, as well.
  • Encourage your child to become a Eucharistic minister, lector, choir member, or altar server at their college. It’s a good way to meet a new group of people and a chance to participate in Mass in a new way.
  • Let your child know it’s OK to look for a parish in the surrounding neighborhood, if he or she is not comfortable at or has a scheduling conflict with the Masses on campus.
  • Let your child know that you’re praying for him or her in a way that makes them feel loved. Give them a small prayer card or medal or a stone from a holy place, etc. — something that symbolizes the faith in a way that isn’t showy. Your child may throw it in a drawer for a while, but may come across it again at just the right time and find that it is a reminder of the faith and of your faith in him or her.
  • Encourage your child to find new ways to pray — while running, hiking, camping, before studying.
  • Encourage your child to explore volunteer opportunities through campus ministry. Often, there are many service groups that are filled with members looking to incorporate spirituality and service.

Wise words and excellent suggestions from Sister Margaret Palliser and Kerry Weber. My thanks to them both! As in everything else in parenting, however, there are no guarantees. In the end, living our own faith as authentically as we can, loving our children and letting them know by our actions that we love them, staying true in our own beliefs even as we discuss different ideas with our kids, and then leaving it all in God’s hands — that’s the very best we can do.

And in that regard Sister Margaret suggested some questions parents might bring to their own prayer:

  • Do I believe that God wants to take care of my child?
  • Do I believe that God knows what’s best for my child?
  • Do I believe that God will not give up on my child?
  • Do I really believe what I believe?

Being able to answer those questions affirmatively may just be the tonic we parents need to sleep through the night.

Please let me know what you think about all this. How do you help keep your away-at-college child connected to the faith? I’d love to hear your thoughts. CD

Prayer petitions for a parent with an away-at-college child

O loving God, help me to adjust to the new ways of “caring for” my child that are appropriate to this stage of his/her life. Help me to discern how I am needed now, and help me to find new ways to give my child support and confidence.

Give me patience as my child and I establish new routines and ways to be present to each other in love and trust; give me understanding to realize that his/ her new routines will likely be different from ones I may have chosen when I was that age.

Protect and guard my child in the midst of the challenges and temptations that surround all young people today. Grant him/her greater courage than I myself might have in standing up for your truth amid challenges to my faith.

Provide good friends, confidants, and mentors for my child during this time of growth and transition. Help me to let go of my own need to be such to my child, for I realize that these are roles that others must play during these college years.

Allow me to pass on to my child something of the strength and courage and grace You have given to me in my experience of being a parent. Amen.

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