Courtesy OSU Newman CenterOlivia Guillén, an Oregon State University student, takes a quiet moment at Father Bernard Youth Center during a retreat.
Courtesy OSU Newman Center
Olivia Guillén, an Oregon State University student, takes a quiet moment at Father Bernard Youth Center during a retreat.
Catholic parents fear that their children might veer from practicing faith during college.

There is good reason for concern. A 2010 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that a third of Catholic students who go to a public college attend Mass less frequently than they did at home. Even at Catholic colleges, 25 percent report a similar drop off.  

It’s not likely that anyone can significantly reverse the trends, since college students have been leaving the church for decades. But experts offer tips that will make it more likely that your student will continue to embrace Catholicism and thrive in it.

Take a tour
The first step in keeping your college kid Catholic is to get familiar with the Catholic resources at the school, which might be a Newman Center, a campus ministry building or the local Catholic parish, says Connor York, a 2015 Oregon State University political science graduate and assistant director of the OSU Newman Center.  

“A campus tour for a Catholic student that does not include the Newman Center is only a half tour,” York says.

Pope Francis is popular among college students and it’s not much of a stretch to put him forward when talking college Catholicism. The University of Oregon Newman Center has a lifelike cutout of the pope near the front door. Passers-by often stop to take photos with him — and also get invited in by staff for coffee and snacks.

“We want students to know that Catholics have fun,” says Corinne Lopez, faith formation director at the UO Newman Center. “We are not boring people.”  

Encourage, don’t force
“We need to meet students where they are and find little things that will intrigue them back into the faith,” says Lopez. “You can’t shove it on them.”

Dominican Father Peter Do, pastor of the Newman Center at UO, says some parents can indeed be too pushy. But even more parents are too hands-off, afraid to give advice on faith.

“Parents should encourage rather than force,” Father Do says. “Sometimes, it’s a fine line.” He meets many parents who take a minimal role in their children’s spirituality and then “freak out” when students step away from the church. He suggests that parents ask the students, “Have you checked in with the Newman Center or campus ministry yet?”

Sign up for a retreat

Father Do says an early step parents should take is to urge their freshmen to sign up for a year-beginning Catholic retreat.  

“If they are new to college, they are looking for their new home, their group of friends, their home away from home,” Father Do says. “We try to get them within the first two weeks of school.”

On retreat, students are bound to make friends who are also Catholic. That will increase the chances of continued religious practice, and even deepen faith life.

York at OSU urges students to attend Mass weekly right from the beginning, checking bulletins and listening to announcements. “Things happen at the start of year that get them plugged in right away, so freshman don’t get stuck in their dorms,” he says. Each year, OSU holds a retreat at the start of the term. Throughout the year, the center sponsors hikes, sports-watching parties and other events.

Anthony Paz, a campus minister at the University of Portland, urges students to think of a prayer form they like and do it each day, even if briefly. He suggests an examination of conscience in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. “That is a life changer,” he says.  

Community life
“Stay in touch with friends who share your faith,” Paz advises students. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have friends who don’t believe — that’s healthy. But having close friends you socialize with regularly, whether from high school or a new faith community like the Newman Center or campus ministry — that is one of the single biggest factors for maintaining Catholic identity and a strong faith life going forward.”

Lopez at UO says students are seeking community, and through that they will come to see the vital importance of sacrament. That’s why social activities are so important.

“The OSU Newman Center was not an organization that I was originally looking to get involved in when coming to Oregon State. After being approached by the most positive and uplifting people who encouraged me to pursue my faith, I decided to give it a shot,” Jolynn Meza Wynkoop wrote on the center’s Facebook page. She says the center became family through events like Bible study and socials at which she “laughed her butt off.”

“Try to find a Catholic roommate,” says York of OSU. When students are filling out a housing profile, “Catholic” can be added as one of the key words. Not only will the new roomies have a deeper bond, but they will hold each other accountable for attending Mass and getting active.  

Find peers to admire
Melanie Pollard, a 2016 Oregon State University graduate and an alumna of Blanchet Catholic in Salem, got involved in college faith after she met a guy in a Newman Center T-shirt in one of her classes. He invited her to come and he became a friend.

“It’s so easy to get plugged into things that are not so positive at college,” says Pollard, who helps the OSU Newman Center reach out to Catholic high school students. She explains that the more incoming students hear about the “beauty and fullness of faith,” the more they will stick with it. Pollard says older students who have gone through a conversion are willing to tell younger peers about the unhappiness that goes with too much partying.

For example, OSU associate director York was active in fraternity life, where faith is far from center. “If I had gone to Newman Center earlier, I would have grown,” he testifies.

Father Do at UO is aware that on campus, many people consider Catholicism “not cool.” That’s why freshmen need older Catholic students who can debunk the prejudice. Newman Centers and campus ministry often have peer ministers — junior, seniors or graduate students — who lead sessions and offer a role model. More and more, campus ministers are sending the peer ministers out to meet students on campus.  

Hard questions OK
At UO once per week, the Newman Center hosts Veritas (truth) Night, when a Catholic student or professor gives a presentation and then opens the floor for questions — no holds barred.

“We focus on topics students care about,” Father Do says. On a recent night, the subject was the Catholic response to immigration.  

Parents should check out if the campus minister is in touch with what is going on in the world. That is the best place from which to teach what the church teaches and that the Catholic faith really makes sense, says Lopez at UO. “They really all want the truth,” she explains. “When students find out they can just be themselves, they feel connected.”

“Don’t be afraid of questions or avoid the big topics,” says Paz at University of Portland. “Ask the questions, wrestle with them, but talk to a peer or a member of the clergy you trust and admire.”

Father Thomas Krieg, author of the Ligouri Publications pamphlet “Keeping Your College Kids Catholic,” writes that college students will be faced with tough choices, including questions about continuing their faith. “But the outlook is bright,” Father Krieg says, if Catholic parents can instill one thing in their children — that Catholic faith is a gift, “sometimes strong, sometimes fragile, always precious.”

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