A stranger in a strange land: how to stay Catholic at university

Students in gown and caps celebrate their graduation (Getty Images)

Autumn marks an important time of transition within the natural world. It also happens to coincide with a period of huge change in the lives of many young people as they embark on their university career.

It is an exciting time, but sometimes a challenging one. Many things that have been held dear throughout childhood will be called into question. This is especially true for Catholic students who will have to make some crucial decisions about whether or not they wish to persevere in the Faith, and how they want to practise it.

This may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but in fact it is an exciting opportunity for individuals to develop into mature Catholics who can defend and enjoy their Faith to the full.

Over almost thirteen years of living and working within a university community, I have seen numerous Catholic students thrive in this environment. I want to share with you some ideas that I found helpful when I started out at university and which have helped others finish their time at university with their Faith intact.

“No man is an island” (John Donne, Meditation xvii)

As an induvial student within the university, you will be part of a huge student body, and sometimes that can seem intimidating. There are countless resources to ensure your wellbeing and you must use them if you need to. Having said that, don’t forget that you belong to the biggest family in the world, the Catholic Church, and wherever you find yourself there will be other Catholics in the same position as you.

Just get involved. Whatever you think might make the smallest difference to your local parish or chaplaincy isn’t small at all. Having a Fresher serve at Mass or do a reading at the beginning of term can fill others with a huge sense of hope about what is to come. Whatever your talent – use it. You will never know what kind of difference you can make, and this will be great practice for whatever vocation you are called to.

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11)

The Sacraments provide food for the soul. You have probably heard this many times before, but when it falls upon you to keep going as an independent Catholic this can take on new meaning.

In the Eucharist you are fed with Christ’s Body and Blood. This not only transforms your life, but, through you, the lives of those around you.

In Confession our sins are truly forgiven and we receive strength to face the aspects of our life that need fixing.

The other Sacraments may not figure as strongly in university life, but we must never forget the grace and dignity given to us in Baptism and Confirmation, nor what we may be called to receive in the future. The Sacraments give us Life, and if we don’t have that Life, how can we hope to pass it on to our peers?

“Always have your answer ready…” (1 Peter 3.15)

Deep and meaningful discussions in the early hours are the bread and butter of nights out and house parties. People will be both confused and intrigued by your Faith. These are precisely the scenarios that St Peter told us to ready ourselves for, and a gentle and tactful approach will never go amiss.

Whilst your university education will, of course, be your primary focus, developing as a thinking, understanding and knowledgeable Catholic has to be high up on your list of priorities. If it isn’t, the questions of others may end up leaving you puzzled by your own beliefs. The chance conversations that happen on campus may not seem important, but they can be the place where you can make all the difference to the lives of your friends. Even if that simply means listening to someone in need for an hour over a coffee – nothing is without meaning.

“Sanctifying one’s work is no fantastic dream but the mission of every Christian – yours and mine.” (St Josemaria Escriva, Furrow, 517)

Without a doubt, your relocation to university is primarily to provide you with an education. This crucial fact can, however, sometimes get lost in the mix. Studying is now your profession. Our Faith means that this professional responsibility also gives us the chance to develop spiritually. Whilst studying particle physics at two o’clock in the morning might seem a million miles from St Joseph’s workshop, it isn’t. Jesus worked hard for years and He wants you to get the most from your experience of doing the same. Intersperse your work with prayer, offer it up for something or someone that matters to you – whatever helps, this is now the very stuff of your sanctity.

“Honour your father and mother” (Exodus 20.12)

Never forget your roots. This is often considered a cliché, but clichés are oft-repeated because they’re generally true. In one way or another your family put you where you are, and they are proud of you and love you. Don’t forget to call them, because that phone call might be the highlight of their week. Don’t forget to thank them. And whatever you do, don’t forget to love them and pray for them. They may not always understand what you’re going through or the latest deadline crisis you’re having, but they want to be there for you and inviting them in will bring them huge amounts of joy. Remember that they worry about you, and a text to let them know you’re safe after a night out can be the biggest act of charity you’ll perform in a long time.

So there it is. Thirteen years of university experience distilled into a few paragraphs. If only I’d known some of this when I started.