What—if anything—ensures a new college student will keep going to Mass?

Photo by Resi Kling on Unsplash

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.

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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 other 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.

J Cosgrove
1 week ago

They will go to Mass if they believe. The main crisis in the Church is belief. It explains most of its problems. If this religious site is any indication, I have not seen anything here on why one should believe in religion or more specifically believe why one should be a Catholic.

John Walton
1 week ago

Children bring graduated college students back to Mass! For the new matriculants -- mass in the lower chapel of Fordham brought a ton of young men and women to mass on Sunday evenings in that apostate era of the late 1960's early 1970's, and I understand that evening mass is an attractive alternate on many college campus(i).

John Chuchman
1 week ago

A good education will move one Out of that Pay, Pray, Obey mentality.

Joan Sheridan
5 days 19 hours ago

I have found that people who leave the Church have no idea what they are leaving. They do not have a good education about their Faith

J Cosgrove
5 days 15 hours ago

See my comment above.

Joan Sheridan
5 days 19 hours ago

I have found that people who leave the Church have no idea what they are leaving. They do not have a good education about their Faith

CATHERINE ARVENTOS
4 days 9 hours ago

When my daughter went to college she had previously stopped going to weekend Mass at our home parish. I had hope though as she had written a beautiful essay about the Serenity Prayer for one of her college applications. As we were moving her into her freshman year at a major university with a very active Newman Center I signed her up for the contact list as I knew she had no such inclination. When a representative from the Newman Center came knocking at her door she politely declined. I still had hope as on one of her visits home she asked me to find the Rosary Beads she had left in her bed and couldn't find. She moved to Boston and I told her about the Jesuit staffed churches in the area and offered to go to Mass with her. She declined and at 29 is quite hostile towards the Catholic Church. Her religious education was not particularly good but she had been an altar server for several years. There was no option for attending Catholic elementary or high school in our area. The positions the Church takes on family life and women's issues are for her an absolute "no" when it comes to Catholicism.

Then my son followed his sister to college two years later. He had always gone to Mass with me each weekend and helped me with my CCD classes. He went to a small liberal arts Catholic college that I also attended and invited me to attend Mass with him on campus his first weekend there. I happily went with him and watched as he looked around the chapel which was full with middle aged and older people from the neighborhood around the college and realized he saw very few other students. Although I believe he went to Mass occasionally after that he never again voluntarily went to Mass with me at our home parish. I encouraged him to take a religious studies class with a dynamic instructor and he agreed and enjoyed the class but it has not brought him back to Mass. He does not discuss his reasons with me.

I have had 3 nieces get married, all brought up in the Catholic Church by religious parents, but none got married in the Church, even though at least one of them was also marrying a Catholic who had been raised in the Church. I am wondering if this couple will seek baptism for their infant son and whether having children will bring them back to the Church. I am somewhat hopeful…

My daughter has been a bridesmaid in many weddings and only one of those weddings has taken place in a Catholic Church even though many of her friends were raised as Catholics.

I am afraid for the future of our Church.

Randal Agostini
1 day 19 hours ago

I agree with J. Cosgrove. In addition - Going to Mass and even receiving Holy Communion is a waste of time unless the recipient is ready to receive Christ. A great deal depends upon the example set by parents, many of whom do not know why they go to Mass, or whether they are ready to receive Christ.
On the other hand University should be the perfect place to nourish Faith. Students are no longer children and they are in an institution focused upon developing and honing their God given gifts. For a young adult to understand their purpose in this world has to be the greatest gift for them and the world - for the Glory of God.

Stan Zorin
1 day 16 hours ago

Just make sure that your child does not go to some of the Catholic colleges where they will turn him or her into a self centered humanist Luciferian progressive agnostic at best or into an outright neo-marxist atheist. The Georgetown University is such a place.

Phillip Stone
1 day 10 hours ago

Did none of you doubt; was there no time you questioned; have you no concept of your own individuality and uniqueness; was everything anyone ever said to you taken as absolute truth?

A church is not a club-house, Christianity is not a culture nor is it an inheritance and being a disciple of Christ is an individual, specific personal call from God and a specific, particular response to that call at the level of the heart and the spirit of the responder.

It is our duty and responsibility to do all in our power to enable healthy growth in mind and body and protect our children, as well as it is within our power to do so, from threats and dangers in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual realm.
We will all fail to some extent in these duties and responsibilities but many of them will arrive strong and healthy into young adulthood. They then have to test everything.
These are the rich, they are in great danger and need all the prayer and fasting and sacrifice possible to facilitate their passage through the eye of the needle.

As most of you have allowed your children to be exposed to, agree with and participate in secular humanism and materialism and American exceptionalism of course they do not take to the life offered in the kingdom of God.
They must suffer for themselves the hurt, wounding, frustration and disappointment of its failure to make them joyful of heart, forgiving and long-suffering.

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