The night I graduated from Harvard, my family held a small gathering at our favourite little restaurant in Cambridge. When it came time for the toast, I expected my family and friends to praise my academic achievements. I was profoundly surprised when they each commented on how proud they were that I had kept my faith at university.
Since then, and throughout my time as a postgraduate at Oxford, I have often been asked about how I managed to keep my faith as a student. My response became my first book: How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard. I wrote it for parents who are worried about sending off their Catholic children to university and getting back atheists, and for students who are worried that they will miss out on having a real university “experience” because of their faith.
Both of these concerns, while legitimate, do not reflect the reality of my time at Harvard, which was a season of great spiritual growth for me and for many of my friends.
The book is largely devoted to dispelling misconceptions. The first is that, if you are a person of faith, you will not have friends. I worried about this a lot in the summer before my first year, and eagerly looked for anything I could find about Harvard Catholics online. According to the website, their last event had been more than a year earlier, so I mentally prepared to feel alone in my faith there.
My experience was precisely the opposite. At the student activities fair, I found booths for the Harvard Catholic Student Association, the Knights of Columbus and various volunteering programmes at the local parish. These days, one would also find the Daughters of Isabella and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus).
Each group is full of sincere believers, since few would bother to be Catholic at a secular university unless they were serious about their faith. For me, these were the people who became the lifelong friends that everyone hopes to make at university.
Sometimes I think it was easier to have Catholic friends at a secular university than it would have been at a Catholic institution because we appreciated how countercultural our beliefs and actions were. We felt like the rebels in some vast conspiracy for Christ: leading clubs (and occasionally voting each other on to boards in absentia), writing and editing each other’s op-eds, and attending Mass together in the mornings. That is not to say that all of my friends are Catholic: several of my closest friends are non-religious, but liberal in the truest sense of being open-minded.
Another misconception is that, given everything else that you have going on, you do not have time to invest in your faith as a university student. At Harvard, and at Oxford, it is easy to believe that you have more important things to do and can always become a regular churchgoer later in life. But even in those busiest seasons when my days were scheduled in 15-minute increments, I nearly always got to daily Mass.
More than my commitment to religious practice, I consider this a testament to the grace available to those who ask for it. To borrow a favourite analogy from the philosopher Peter Kreeft, God multiplies your time like loaves and fishes. On a human level, I am more relaxed, focused, and productive when I get to daily Mass. On a supernatural level, the grace from the Sacrament pours out into all of my activities and relationships. The Mass transforms my life from the execution of a compartmentalised, never-ending To Do list into a human and cohesive whole.
This is true of any season in life, but most especially in those university years, when you are first making decisions about your own time. For many of us, our lives go from having someone else dictate the details of our diaries to making all of our own decisions. For me, Mass was an anchor for my time: something I could do every day at the same time, and around which I could structure all my other commitments.
If I had to give just one piece of advice about keeping the faith at secular universities, it would be this: go to Mass every week. If you want to grow in your faith, go every day.
Another mistaken belief among Catholic parents and students is that secular universities are bastions of atheist professors, preying on believers and looking to disabuse them of all religious conviction.
There was one professor whom I greatly admired for his exquisite speaking style. His deep, compelling voice was famous around campus, and I suspect some students took the class just to listen to him talk. One day at the 12:10 Mass at St Paul’s in Harvard Square, I heard his lovely, lyrical voice echoing throughout the church. I looked up, and there was my professor: the great lecturer, lectoring. We struck up a conversation after Mass and he has been a dear mentor, and friend, ever since.
I remain close to two other professor friends, and several graduate student teaching fellows, who are similarly serious about their faith. Though some of my friends had different experiences, I never once heard a professor say something anti-Christian in my six years Harvard and Oxford.
Finally, many people believe that they will not achieve worldly success if they publicly witness to the truths of the Church. The last question I was asked in my interview as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship was whether I supported embryonic stem cell research. Convinced I was forfeiting the scholarship, I told the committee that I believed all life was sacred and such practices did not respect the human person. As it turned out, the committee was looking for someone with the integrity to advocate controversial opinions, and they awarded me the scholarship. I can truly say that the best opportunities in my life have come because of, and never despite, my faith.
It’s not as if everything worked out that well all the time. There were times when being a witness for the faith required real sacrifice. When I first met my class of US Rhodes Scholars, we were required to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves in an awkward ice-breaker, each saying something “vulnerable” about our lives. I confessed that I was Catholic, and that I believed in all the teachings of the Church. While my Catholicism is no secret – at this point, the Harvard Black Mass debacle is the first thing that comes up if you Google my name – it was a risky thing to say.
Some of the people in my Rhodes class, though always cordial at cocktail parties, never really spoke to me when they found out that I was a serious Catholic. I was openly mocked when I said in my first Oxford tutorial that I believed in the existence of the human soul. There were, and still are, times when I feel isolated or convince myself that I am too busy to pray.
But the setbacks are very minor compared to the overwhelmingly positive experience I have had as a Catholic at Harvard and Oxford. And my story is not unusual: most of my friends became more serious about their faith at university. For those who are willing to put in the effort, there are unbelievable opportunities available for Catholics at secular schools. The question remains for them, as for all of us: what will we do with them?
This article first appeared in the September 23 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.