What—if anything—ensures a new college student will keep going to Mass?
We did not realize we would be the last parents on campus.
This was just a few weeks ago, the Sunday of first-year college orientation weekend for our daughter, our oldest. Some families had arrived on Friday, seen their children into their rooms, and then turned around and left. Other parents left Saturday morning, some Saturday night.
And then there was us. Still hanging around, studying the color-coded schedule that had been our bible. “Look!” I said, pointing to the Sunday morning block, where the college, a secular institution, had noted that various churches on and around campus would be holding services. “There’s still a reason to be here.”
My daughter, whose patience with her doddering parents had been a truly marvelous thing to behold all weekend, nodded. “Right,” she said. “But not everyone here goes to church, of course.”
Of all the transitions that accompany starting college, one of the keenest is moving from one faith community to another.
Of course. Of all the transitions that accompany starting college, one of the keenest, at least for families who have brought their children to religious services regularly throughout childhood, is moving from one faith community to another. Sometimes this transition is relatively seamless; students heading from, say, a Jesuit high school to a Jesuit college may not even have to switch hymnals.
But then again, they may switch to not going to church at all.
In all the tumult of the college deliberations, decisions and finally matriculation, I had not focused on what role Mass-going would play, if any, in my daughter’s college career. But walking to Mass that Sunday morning on campus, the question suddenly felt urgent. What keeps a child going to church? Or rather, what keeps a child who has just become an adult in church?
Food seemed to be one answer at the Catholic chapel we visited that morning with my daughter. Brunch normally followed the morning Mass, we were told. Dinner, the evening Mass. And for those who attended the late Sunday night Mass—traditionally the most popular on campuses—there was cereal. Midweek there was ice cream. Or perhaps pizza. Or both. I got a bit lost in the menu.
What keeps a child going to church? Or rather, what keeps a child who has just become an adult in church?
Back home in Milwaukee, our parish school so firmly (and, given the local economy, fittingly) believes that beer is a way to make sure parents show up to various events, I have often told prospective families to think of the institution as a big tavern with a little school attached. My daughter’s college chapel, meanwhile, could have been mistaken for a buffet (she was also given a welcome gift of M&Ms customized with crosses).
But after the dishes are cleared away, what then?
I don’t remember my parents telling me to go to Mass after they had dropped me off at college. I had gone to a Jesuit high school, and we had been weekly Massgoers throughout my childhood. My college was secular, but its campus was bracketed by two Catholic churches—one that served the town and another specifically for the campus. In other words, a pew was never far away. But other Catholic students were, or it felt that way.
“What time are you going to Mass?” was never a conversation in the dining hall on weekends—in part because other students’ attitudes toward Catholicism and religion in general ranged from disinterested to hostile.
And yet I went. Week after week. Not every week—I was in college, after all, and my campus didn’t then have the late-night option. There were Sundays when I slept.
As much as I want to pass along specific advice to other parents about how to ensure their college-age kids show up at Mass, I can’t.
But when I slept in, I felt I had missed something. I think my initial attendance freshman year was simply out of inertia. I went because I always went. But over time, that changed. I went because I missed it if I didn’t. I missed the community. I missed the connection. I missed Communion, both upper- and lowercase.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. There was a cadre of us who attended regularly, and we would exchange an almost-secret smile whenever we crossed paths elsewhere on campus. This was important. Knowing that I was not alone in my faith helped me keep my faith.
But on occasion, I was alone. One Good Friday, for various reasons—including the fact that the service time had been changed at the last minute—I was the only one who showed up for church. No matter. The chaplain pressed me into duty as an altar server, had me don a cassock. When, deep into the liturgy, he prostrated himself before the cross, as is the custom of the Good Friday liturgy, he bade me lie down, too, and I did.
Part of me was mortified. However implausible, I wondered what would happen if some of my non-Catholic friends stumbled in at that moment. They would see me clad in white, lying face-down in an all-but-empty church. I wasn’t worried they would mock me—I was afraid they would run away terrified.
I do not know what lies ahead for my daughter and her faith.
I almost did that myself. But the longer we lay there in the calm dark quiet, the more still I became, the more moved I became. I have been to many services since, on campuses and off, in and out of the Easter season, good Masses and bad, but I have never had such an extraordinary experience in church as I had that day. I can still feel the cool stone against my face.
I doubt my daughter will have that experience, for the happy reason that I do not think she will ever be alone at Mass on Good Friday—or any other day. Her campus Catholic community seems vibrant and crowded. We are more than a month into the semester, and she reports that she is still going.
I am sure that endless buffet has something to do with it, but I credit more their busy slate of programming and their dynamic staff.
And beyond that? As much as I want to pass along specific advice to other parents about how to ensure their college-age kids show up at Mass, I can’t. What is more, I don’t want to. Without taking anything away from the sacrament of confirmation, it seems to me that it is this inflection point—college or when, for whatever reason, a child leaves home and starts her journey as an adult—that a young Catholic truly has to lay claim to her faith.
I do not know what lies ahead for my daughter and her faith. I do know that she has had a wonderful grounding after 12 years of Catholic schooling, including one extraordinary senior year when she and three classmates participated in a months-long effort to plan and run a campus ministry retreat for freshmen at their high school. The experience of seeing that through, working side by side with one another and with a wonderfully wise lay woman campus minister, deepened my daughter’s faith in ways I could never have anticipated. I hope she will find similar traveling companions in her new community. I hope they all head eagerly, hungrily, to the table that’s set for them each Sunday.