An alternate version of this article was originally published in the online periodical, The Messenger.
I suppose I should start by stating three things. One: I firmly believe that a wholesome, grounded Catholic education is one of the most important gifts a person can receive. Two: I truly and absolutely adore my university. Three: the previous statements are, in the eyes of many, directly contradictory.
Allow me to explain.
I’ve been raised strongly Catholic my entire life. My parents sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools K-12, and homeschooled us when they were dissatisfied with the quality of education in the area. We went to a non-denominational Sunday school for more than 11 years, delving deep into scripture and engaging in intriguing discussion with other denominations.
When it came time for me to pick a college, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to attend a Catholic university. At that point, I’d been heavily involved in my high school’s Confirmation Retreat Team, as well as St. Louis’ REAP Team, QuesTEC, a monk-tastic summer camp (One Bread, One Cup), and was headed off to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology and pursue a career as a theological speaker and writer.
When I was finally accepted into my alma mater, I was ecstatic. I knew it was the right choice. I’d heard great things about its theology program and I couldn’t wait to be at a Catholic university, where people had chosen to go there, so they would be just as excited as me about my faith. I couldn’t wait for all the wonderfully deep theological discussions, the strong community to attend Mass with, the friends who would join me in making nerdy religion jokes, and the wise, learned professors with whom I could explore the Church and soak up their vast, ecclesiastical knowledge.
I was disappointed.
Put frankly, my school’s not exactly…Catholic. Sure, it’s in the name and you can bet it’s on my monthly loan bill, but if there’s one thing that the extra $$,$$$ per year has taught me, it’s that “Catholic” has become more of an academic selling point than a way of life.
My freshman year, as the ceremonial incense rose revealing almost nothing of real substance beneath it, my heart sank. It wasn’t just a lack of spirituality—the typical collegiate beer-tonight-Blood-tomorrow spirituality was quite strong and packed the student Mass each Sunday—it was also a lack of Catholic life. It was a lack of Catholic conviction. A lack of Catholic belief, in her Church, her God, and her teachings. If anyone there was Catholic, 167 hours of the week you couldn’t tell it.
I knew that once I left the bubble of my hometown, I would encounter people whose beliefs opposed my own. What I didn’t expect was to be detested for it. The sentiments on my campus towards people with my beliefs were tense to say the least.
In order to not get totally shut down in the majority of my interactions with people, I became a sort of closet Catholic; I held exactly the same convictions as before, I was just far less vocal about it. It worked. People (wrongly) assumed that I was like everyone else: Catholic by title and consumption of the Eucharist, but “enlightened” when it came to the Church’s teachings…all of which I should reject except the teachings on social justice.
I soon became convinced that lectures riddled with “Catholic teaching aside…” were the only way some professors put the Church in the classroom at all. The only teacher who taught me truly engaging theology (beyond the surface-level, politically correct fluff) was a Sunni Muslim who often found himself defending Catholicism to his Catholic colleagues.
Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t completely off base on everything. After all, if one is looking simply for a school with strong convictions to volunteer service, that place is the jackpot. But there were enough anti-Catholic sentiments floating around—especially in my own department—to make me seriously question what I was doing there.
And seriously question I did.
I wanted to transfer pretty badly, but such a move would have been financial suicide. Instead, I took a deep breath and went back for a second year.
And Praise. Be. To. God.
Now, an adult in the working world, I see how overwhelmingly blessed I have been. I’m extremely grateful that I experienced a severe letdown and such strong resistance in college. As I pursue my dream as a theological speaker, it’s critical that I am able to foster healthy relationships with people who strongly disagree with me, even—and especially—when their actions are far from reciprocal.
It was far better to have reality mow me down in the relatively stable environment of college than in my first year on the job.
I’ve learned to acknowledge that tragedy and beauty inevitably accompany one another. I’ve grown to understand how people on the other sides of arguments think, what their logic is, and exactly why I disagree with it. Most of all, by the time I’d graduated, I’d fallen in love with my school all over again. My fantastic, challenging, and imperfect school.
Being a Catholic in a not-so-Catholic school was an enormous challenge and while it’s definitely not for everyone, I’ve discovered that shying away from the obstacles God confronts us with can be even more hazardous. After all, gold is proved worthy in fire (1 Peter 1:6-8). Through this fire, I fell deeply in love with God’s plan for me, God himself, and my incredible calling—whatever it may be. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.