How to keep the faith on campus

Sept. 22, 2010Prospective students leave the undergraduate admissions building to take a tour of Georgetown University campus in Northwest Washington. … Continued


Sept. 22, 2010Prospective students leave the undergraduate admissions building to take a tour of Georgetown University campus in Northwest Washington. There are 235 Catholic universities in the United States, including Georgetown.Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

A few years ago, as we prepared to welcome our first-year students to Georgetown, the earth quaked, a novel seismic experience for most of us on the East coast. This minor earthquake became a vivid metaphor for me as I encountered one student after another who seemed to be on shifting ground when it came to their faith conviction. So much was new and overwhelming; they were both exhilarated and downright scared.

Those going off to college this time of year are in the midst of the most significant transition of their lives. Academically, these high school graduates will learn to think more deeply, read more broadly, and write more cogently. Socially, relationships will shift as distance tests high school friendships and families adjust to a new way of being together. Emotionally, they will likely experience a mix of feelings about their new life. Often overlooked in the transition to college are the spiritual and religious dimensions of the change.

For the young, religious identification can be fluid. As with other parts of their lives, they test their faith commitments. According to a survey published in October 2012 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 30 define their religious preference as “none,” which is a significant increase from five years ago. The “nones” encompass a variety of people. Most are “spiritual but not religious,” believing in God but not wanting to be tied down by any one religious profession or practice. A smaller number are atheists or agnostics.

While more young people are choosing not to affiliate with a religious community, over two-thirds of young adults identify as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Mormon, or another religious denomination. In contrast to Western Europe, the United States remains a very religious country. Like an ethnic, racial, and gender identity, young adults can grow into their religious identity during the college years as they meet new people, encounter a range of ideas inside and outside of class, and experience the nitty, gritty reality of life away from the often safe confines of home and high school. Growing pains can mark this religious “coming of age.”

In these shaky times, holding on to one’s religious tradition can be very helpful. A living tradition offers comfort, encouragement and the wisdom of others who have gone through the ups and downs of human living and found God in the mix of it all. But we must not hold on to that tradition too tightly because religion deals with a Holy Mystery that eludes any one formulation, image, or practice. Sometimes we have to let go of a familiar, tried-and-true way of praying or believing in order to embrace another way of relating to God that better suits us as we get older.

This in-between time, so often associated with the college years, can be awkward and unsettling. But it can also be a moment of grace if we do not rush it. We have to let ourselves feel incomplete, even empty sometimes, so that we can be filled in unimaginable new ways. This spiritual longing like homesickness for our loved ones at home means that in our emptiness, we still love God deeply.

Doubts are natural. Jacob wrestled with his angel. Thomas did not believe the good news of the resurrection. Even Jesus hesitated in the garden and questioned on the cross. To doubt does not mean to lack faith. To the contrary, doubt can be a sign that one’s faith is very much alive. We care enough about our relationship with God to wrestle with the Divine. Questions are a way of keeping the conversation going. Apathy is more indicative of a crisis of faith, and easily leads to a very uninteresting, stagnant faith. Better to rant and rave at God than give God the silent treatment.

What students learn or read in class, or pick up from others, can stoke many good questions. This is usually a good sign that young people are growing into an adult faith and using the minds God gave them. A thinking faith is a vibrant, interesting faith, and thus one that will last a lifetime. In such moments, talking to an older mentor can be helpful so that questioning does not only disassemble and deconstruct, leaving nothing behind, but instead leads to building up and emboldening.

In short, young adults transitioning to college need to be gentle with themselves and others. Parents do well to model that patience. The devout high school son may come home at Thanksgiving and announce his love for Nietzsche and his conviction that he is now an atheist. The once church-going daughter may return home a “seeker,” having experienced a variety of religious communities with her new friends. I recall that during my freshmen year at Georgetown, after taking the first required theology course, I fell into a deep spiritual funk, which felt very uncomfortable in my Irish Catholic skin. In the class, I addressed unsettling and age-old questions about the existence of God and the problem of evil. I got through it after a few months, with a stronger, more grounded, more deeply personal faith and a life-long desire to learn more.

I’m a Jesuit priest now, working and teaching back at Georgetown, ready to greet another group of 18-year-olds. I hope that there will be no earthquakes this time around. But surely I will find more than a few who are on shifting spiritual ground. I will try to be like those good people who, when I was 18, were so faithful to me, and who thus showed me what God’s faithfulness looked like. I will listen first and offer some counsel, careful not to too quickly relieve them of the necessary task of struggling through the questions on their own. And I will point them to one of our religious communities on campus made up of equally excited, confused, uncertain, and hopeful young adults. Across their differences, they find consolation in walking the journey of faith together, each leaning on the other and open to a mystery still unfolding in their remarkable lives.

Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Kevin O'Brien
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