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Staying Catholic in college: It can be done

Banner aurora griffen stayed  catholic at harvard

“Few things can be more important than the faith of the next generation,” Peter Kreeft writes. “The future of our civilization, that is, the goodness and truth and beauty of our culture, depends on the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, God; and the umbilical cord to God is faith — not just faith in anything, but the faith, the one God invented, not us.”

Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, writes this in an introduction to a book called “How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard,” by Aurora Griffin.

Recounting how Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to tell parents that going to a “Catholic” — in name only — college could just about guarantee your child loses the faith of his upbringing. About Griffin’s book, he adds: “The best way to keep it, at any college, is to read this book.” Recently, Griffin took time to talk about her new book.

Lopez: How is confession an “acquired taste”?

Griffin: Almost every convert to Catholicism that I know, including my mom, has anxieties about confession. I knew from a young age that I would have to regularly tell someone else — an older man, a spiritual authority, a priest — about the worst things I would do in my life. It still sounds like a weird concept to explain to someone else, so I am not surprised when people struggle with it so much. Putting aside the theological debates about confessing your sins to the priest in persona Christi, etc., confession is a difficult and beautiful encounter with your own humanity. It’s not an easy thing to look at ourselves, admit our faults and say them out loud to another person, but it’s transformative to have them listen and say, “You are forgiven.” Once you’ve experienced that, and believe that you are forgiven then and there, it becomes much easier.

Lopez: Why have a litany of saints chapter?”

Griffin: There are two main reasons for this one. First, the saints are models and reminders of the many forms of heroic love for God there can be. It’s good to identify some with whom you have something in common, so you can more personally draw on their examples in your own life. It’s also good to have some in your litany those who are not like you at all, to remind yourself of the enormous diversity of the Church.

I love the young female warrior, Joan of Arc, and find it easy to think of myself imitating her, albeit in very different life circumstances. I find the self-deprecating piety of St. Thérèse much more difficult to understand, but I intentionally try to learn from her example, too. Holiness comes in many forms, and we have to be able to appreciate people and love the goodness in them, even when it’s very different from our own.

The second reason is more controversial. For me, the saints are more than models: they are friends. I ask them to pray for me, to accompany me, to guide me. My litany of saints is not just a reminder of all the things I could be — it’s a contact list of the people I should be sure to reach out to and ask for help when I need it.

Lopez: How do you sanctify work without joining Opus Dei?

Griffin: Well, I’m not a member of Opus Dei, just a fan. Still, I find they have taught me a lot about sanctifying my work, especially as a student. There are a number of good ways to do this, all of which have to do with being more mindful about your work. Praying beforehand for an intention — dedicating an essay or an afternoon of chores, for example — can really help one focus on doing the task for someone or something else spiritually.

Trying to be mindful when you get frustrated during the work is harder, although I like Opus Dei’s recommendation of keeping a small cross on your desk to unite your suffering to Christ’s. And finally, examining your conscience after you finish a task and before you go to sleep can really help. It doesn’t have to be anything too intense … simply looking back at what you’ve done and asking our Lord to show you how you can do your work with more love and firmer intentions the next time is sufficient.

Lopez: What’s so special about FOCUS?

Griffin: The Fellowship of Catholic University Students thrives on its peer-to-peer ministry. The missionaries are recent graduates, so their programs offer the advantages and limitations that people our age can, much like my book. At Harvard, the missionaries did a wonderful job breaking up cliques that were forming in the Catholic community by befriending anyone and everyone. Their job, which they fundraise their own salaries for, is to meet with students, pray for them and preach the Gospel.

At Harvard, their presence was transformative. We went from having one poorly attended social per week at the Catholic club to having a multitude of Bible studies, a holy hour, theology talks, etc. Obviously, the missionaries can’t put on all this programming themselves, but they inspire and equip students to be disciples and leaders in their own communities on campus.

Lopez: “Prayer is about God, not about our feelings.” How best to get out of his way in your 40 chapters?

Griffin: The sacraments are by far our best tools to improve in holiness. It’s technically in the introduction because it made the numbers work out better (“Forty-three Tips for Faithful College Students” didn’t have the same biblical ring to it). However, going to daily Mass is the best way to grow spiritually. The Eucharist has been the center of my spiritual life since I began seriously practicing my faith about 10 years ago. I don’t know where I’d be without physically receiving Christ every day.

That’s a point I really hope gets across in the book, and here: being Catholic is not about our efforts to impress God and other people. It’s not 40 things you can do to make yourself a saint. It’s about allowing ourselves to be loved and transformed by him so we can love others in the same way. Receiving the Eucharist goes much deeper than our daily feelings about prayers, even our sensory experience — and gets right to the heart of the matter.

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