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College Freshmen—Are You Ready to Get It Right?

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How to stay faithful and smart in college

What’s the most reliable way to destroy the faith of young Catholic adults? Send them to college—preferably a Catholic college. Do I exaggerate? Well…yes…almost…

Some folks might roll their eyes, and say, “People have been fretting about the ‘ill effects’ of college culture on religious students for decades! William Buckley got the ball rolling back in the 1940s with his first book(“God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’”) and Mark Judge tried to keep the ball rolling almost 60 years later with his book (“God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling”). Really, Father, this is just perennial handwringing from the few, the proud and the shrill—nothing more.”

It may be comforting to tell ourselves that, but evidence suggests that such “comfort” is as genuine as the “comfort” we give ourselves when we say, “Don’t worry if young people leave the Church! They’ll come back when they get married and have kids!” (The truth is that they don’t—they don’t get married, they don’t have kids and they don’t come back.) In fact, both secular sources and religious sources have been gathering data for years, and the data indicate that for Catholic students, religious faith and religious practice corrode to the point of collapse during their college years, even if they attend self-identified Catholic schools. My colleague Catherine Pakaluk offers a brief summary of current research on the topic in her essay, “College: Where Faith and Virtue Go to Die.” The Cardinal Newman Society is indispensable for monitoring the health of Catholic higher education.

Having spent much of my adult life as either a university student or a university professor, I believe I can offer (as a follow-up to my recent advice to parents of college freshmen) guidance to Catholic college students on how to mature as Catholic adults both in college and beyond. I will focus on matters practical, intellectual, moral and spiritual.

Practical matters, in no particular order:

• “Amateurs talk about time management; professionals talk about energy management.” Yes, being organized, keeping a calendar and making lists are important. (The most helpful book I’ve found for that is “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”) But having all the time in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t stay awake. Regular sleep habits are a lifesaver! Yes, sometimes you do have to go the extra mile. You can function better the next day by going to bed early (say, 9pm) and waking upreally early (say, 3am), to get essential R.E.M. sleep, rather than pulling an all-nighter. And don’t rely on caffeine or energy drinks—the “loan sharks of energy

• “Your education is expensive—get your money’s worth!” Cutting classes, skipping assignments, handing in sub-standard work—these are forms of theft as well as self-sabotage. Don’t get into the trap of treating your school work as an intrusion into your social life. Build your life around your studies. Your vocation now is to be a student—and God will ask you about your fidelity to that vocation!

Intellectual matters, in no particular order:

• “If you can think it, you can say it, and if you can say it you can write it!” A professor told me that when I was a college junior, and it is true 98.6% of the time (I might write a column someday about the other 1.4%). As a professor, all of my written exams are take-home exams. Students have two weeks to write their essays for me. Working with me, they learn to hone their writing skills—or they don’t work with me, and then fail. They fail the exam, they fail to learn and they fail themselves. There are strong links between the quality of one’s writing, the love of reading, and the love of learning. Promise yourself that you will read (this semester!) and re-read the following: Adler’s “ How to Read a Book”; and Zissner’s “ Writing to Learn: How to Write-and Think-Clearly About Any Subject at All”; and Schall’s “ Another Sort of Learning.
• “Read great writing with good friends!” Every month, I host a dinner party that the students have dubbed, “J.R.N.” (Jesuit Reading Night). We cook a simple meal, and then we spend hours together reading poetry at the dinner table. Our conversations extend to favorite authors, high hopes and vexing frustrations. Friendships are formed and our love for language and God are deepened. To prepare yourself for similar delights, start with Adler’s “ How to Speak, How to Listen”; Caldecott’s “ Beauty in the Word” and Pearce’s “ Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape.
Moral matters, in no particular order:
• “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel…” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3) In other words, treasure your friendships! The friends you meet at college can be the friends who dance at your wedding, invest in your business, become godparents for your children, comfort you as you mourn, or even become your spouse. I am proud (and grateful) to be able to say that I’ve had friendships from college that have lasted well over 30 years. I wish for you that same gift—a gift that must be gratefully received and carefully kept. When I was an undergraduate, I was won over by Hinnebusch’s “ Friendship in the Lord.” A more recent book in the same vein is Wadell’s, “Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship.
• “Don’t do stupid things in stupid places with stupid people!” Sadly, over the years, because students did not heed that advice, I’ve had to go see them in hospitals, jails and morgues. And then I’ve had to call their parents to tell them where I’ve been. Staying sober, staying clothed and staying upright, and staying with people who do the same is the most reliable way of avoiding unnecessary tragedies that can have lifelong and even eternal consequences.
Spiritual matters, in a very particular order:
• “Be an adult!” In other words, take responsibility for your discipleship with Christ, and for your knowledge and practice of the Faith. Study the Faith—get a copy of the Youth Catechism (also known as “ Youcat”). Pray with the Church daily—especially the Mass! Get a subscription to Magnificat magazine to pray with the Church throughout the year. Go to Confession! At least once a month—without exception. It’s good spiritual hygiene, and it’s hard to be right with God without it.

• “Insist on being treated as an adult!” In other words, don’t settle for what students have described as “bubble-gum ministry” that treats you as if you will forever be an excitable teenager with a short attention span who demands (and needs) nothing but entertainment. I’ve observed many well-intentioned folks over the years who think they’ve served students well because “the kids” are shouting, high-fiving and sporting new t-shirts with cool logos. (And don’t forget the selfies!) You deserve better than that. And the Church has so much more to offer. Ask your campus minister or Newman Center staff to read Dawn’s “ Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down .” Ask for the great Catholic music that led Pope Benedict to “ an encounter with the divine .” You will then find insufficient the kind of music that one pastor I know referred to as “ 7-11 music ” (as he described it, “The same 7 words repeated 11 times.”) Read what smart, prayerful men likePieper and Kwasniewski say about worship. And when it comes to retreats, please don’t settle for what some students have lamented as, “play-dates with Mass attached” (that is, “Swimming! Kayaking! Volleyball! Bowling! And Mass too!”).  Solid, prayerful substance for even a weekend retreat is readily available. ( See Thomas Rausch, S.J. )

A good college education worthy of a young Catholic adult will help a student become a better disciple of Christ, competent and confident to find his way through this world to the heart of our Heavenly Father, our only true home. I urge all college students, especially new college students, to resolve to attain that education that is worthy of your Catholic identity.

When I write next, I will speak of the temptation to “market” the Church with slogans and gimmicks. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J . is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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