Eagle's Eye

Walking the Path of Faith: Giving Reason for Our Hope

“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you the reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Witnessing to one’s faith is a touchy subject on a college campus. In these formative years, changes take place on many levels: intellectual, emotional, social, and yes, spiritual. Sorting out the complex process of relearning and integrating one’s faith and beliefs into adulthood is part and parcel of the college years. Alumni might agree that in life’s long haul, the spiritual journey is as important as a major and a job offer!

With 40 percent of today’s U.S. Catholics age 18-40, and five million in higher education, faith formation on campus is vital. Two recent national surveys point to the need for new directions. From 2001-07, the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, surveyed more than 3,000 young people. From 2003-10, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed 112,000 students at 236 colleges. Both surveys reveal interesting facts about spirituality and today’s young people.

It’s a classic “good news-bad news” phenomenon. The UNC study surveyed high school students, while the UCLA study focused on college students. The good news is that the studies concluded that today’s youth are interested in spirituality. Both studies dispel the stereotype of young people as hostile to spirituality and religion. The UNC study said teens are “exceedingly conventional” in religious identity and practices. The UCLA study showed a high level of “spiritual engagement,” with 71 percent stating they “gain strength by trusting in a higher power.” Happily, spirituality flourishes in a secular age.

Yet both studies pointed to a lack of intellectual rigor in religious training of youth and a fall-off in religious practice of faith for college upperclassmen. Both studies came to complete agreement on two particularly unsettling matters: Catholic high school and college youth, the largest group in each study, lagged far behind other Christian youth in articulating their faith and having a willingness to put their beliefs into action.

The UNC study noted that many Catholic youth “have only a vague notion of the tenets and teachings of their religion … they appear spiritually bereft of knowledge and understanding of the great Christian doctrines and narratives.” The UNC study terms this “moral therapeutic Deism.” It is defined as one who, while believing in God, is “nice” and “fair” to others, feels good about oneself, but turns to God only as a problem solver in crisis moments. There is no depth to this faith, and if God does not cooperate: watch out!

The 2003 UCLA study tracked its subjects throughout their college years. It noted after the high level of interest in their first year, there was a noticeable drop-off in interest in spirituality, from 50 percent to 37 percent. Attendance at religious services fell from 52 percent to 29 percent. Although students developed an “ethic of caring,” participation in religious life dropped dramatically. Catholic collegians were the largest single group, but they scored “significantly lower” in “religious commitment and engagement” than Protestant peers.

I suspect this data resonates with the experience of many Catholic campus ministers. The catch phrase, “spiritual, but not religious” captures how many young people see themselves today. It is a challenge that must be met head on, as it affects what values they live out and the type of faith they will pass on to their children.

Here at NU, the campus ministry staff has reflected on this reality and discussed ways to help our students “give reason for the hope” that is our Catholic faith. In studying the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter “Empowered by the Spirit,” we focused on the six goals they proffer as benchmarks for an effective campus ministry program. We’ll apply three goals each year for the next two years, devising programs for catechesis, prayer, retreats, seminars, service, and social events. This year’s goals are: “Forming the Faith Community,” “Appropriating the Faith,” and “Developing Future Leaders.”

Signs are posted all over campus and on our Facebook page (yes, we’re under “Campus Ministry Corner”) about “Women of the Word,” a new women’s Bible study; “A View from the Pew,” a seminar on getting more out of Mass; “Niagara Plunge,” our new freshmen precollege retreat and service program; and “Spiritual Life Coaching,” to introduce the revered practice of spiritual direction to NU students in a contemporary way. And our new student advisory board will challenge us tom truly be Christ to others.

Keep our staff and our efforts in your prayers as we move forward this year. The quote from the first letter of Peter ends with the “how” of hope: “do it with gentleness and reverence.” After all is said and done, faith is not only “taught” but “caught” in the witness we give to God in our daily lives. St. Francis of Assisi said it best: “Always preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.”