The absence of a personal relationship with God causes students to fall away even before…
Finding friends of faith in college
The great British author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote that “friendship must be about something” because friends are travelers on the same quest with a common vision. They ask the fundamental questions: “Do you see the same truth? Do you see the world as I do?”
Nellie Adams of Boston prayed for those kinds of friendships before she arrived at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“My prayers were abundantly answered in the relationships that I found in campus ministry,” Adams said. “These are men and women who push me to love Christ and love all those I encounter. It’s through these relationships that my faith has been strengthened.”
Those friends, she added, encouraged her to be the best version of herself. “And I have seen the face of Christ,” she said.
Adams, 20, is a junior majoring in social work and theology. Like many Catholic students attending Catholic colleges and universities, she sought authentic friends who could help her to grow in her faith. There are more than 100 opportunities for such groups at CUA.
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“We want to give students the ability to explore and find the right friends and the right groups and interests so that they find where they feel like they truly fit,” said Kathryn Jennings, associate vice president of student engagement. “We definitely have students who don’t want to connect with their faith, but for the ones who do, we make it very easy for them to have conversations about faith and feel comfortable about it. Friendships are a big part of that.”
Father Jude DeAngelo is the director of campus ministry, which sponsors events where students can build relationships. CUA also has 23 student ministers who have genuine interest in the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of their peers.
“Students who are involved in their faith attract other students, especially if they are joyful,” Father DeAngelo said.
Adams is one of the student ministers.
“My friends have open hearts and time for listening, and I believe that I will be able to turn to them because they love me like Christ loves me,” she said. “They see my weaknesses, and they fill me with strength to live as a child of God.”
Part of a family
Dante Nicotera of Hanover, Massachusetts, a senior with a double major in biology and psychological and brain sciences, is a student coordinator of orientation.
“The years in college are some of the most formative years of life in faith and other aspects,” he said. “When you’re in your 20s and trying to figure out yourself, it’s crucial to form relationships with people who are going to be there for you as lifelong friends.”
It’s not just about being Catholic, Nicotera added. “Every person here wants to build genuine relationships, whether or not they’re involved in campus ministry. When I came for accepted-students day, I felt that everyone genuinely wanted me to come here and be part of this family.”
Campus minister David Lanetti of Malvern, Pennsylvania, graduated in May with a major in architecture and is pursuing a master’s degree in the field.
“I wanted to become involved in campus ministry to grow in faith and meet new people who had similar interests,” Lanetti said. “They eventually became my closest friends, and I have made memories that I will never forget. Chances are that I won’t remember every story and memory from CUA, but I’ll always remember that I have an amazing group of lifetime faith-filled friends by my side.”
About half the students who attend the Awakening Retreat at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas, move on to become staff, which deepens their own experiences. They learn to be skilled in holy listening and presence when they walk the journey with other students.
“They really understand their role as peers and what gifts they can offer,” said Creighton Chandler, director of university ministry.
The three-day weekend (students don’t have to be Catholic to attend) centers on students telling their stories.
“They are able to step back to understand themselves as sacred beings and to have peers walk with them in their own sacred story of discovery or rediscovery,” he said.
Victoria Espinosa, a senior from Mesquite, Texas, is majoring in early childhood bilingual education. She is now on staff for the retreat.
“It was really cool to share experiences with people my age who were going through stuff that I probably wasn’t going through,” she said about her first weekend. “I also learned things about friends I had been with for weeks and I didn’t know what they were going through. It was a nice connection to make, especially since I went to it in my freshman year. That retreat was kind of a kickoff to many friendships that I still have to this day.”
Being Catholic on a secular campus
Julia Messina was settling in to her freshman dorm at Penn State University when her parents handed her a letter from her godfather.
“You were raised a Catholic and now you are on your own,” John Przybysz wrote. “I encourage you to either own or disown your faith.”
He included a list of things to do on campus, like joining the Newman Center and going on the fall retreat.
“I sort of felt intimidated,” she said, but his message was encouraging. “Going to class and having friends who aren’t Catholic can make you feel like a weirdo at times. It definitely made it much easier for me to become involved with the Catholic community and have friends who encourage me to live out my faith in all ways. My faith had been strong, but it got even stronger.”
Messina, of Plum, Pennsylvania, is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. She works in the Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) office run by Father Matthew Laffey, director, and Father David Griffin.
Father Laffey noted that Catholic students face challenges on secular campuses when prevailing values are not consistent with theirs. There are a lot of distractions without the right friends.
“The challenge is to get them in with their peers, with people who understand their beliefs in a Christian sense, not just Catholic,” he said.
CCM offers many opportunities for faith and friendship in Bible study, charismatic prayer groups, and service projects that take students out of state and abroad. They also go to Mass together or just hang out at the center.
“It becomes almost contagious,” Father Laffey said. “The students look out for each other.”
Messina expects her campus friendships to last a lifetime. “I didn’t realize how good and wholesome friendships could be,” she said.
Paige Lemieux from Glen Rock, New Jersey, is a junior majoring in communication sciences and disorders. She didn’t initially seek a Catholic presence on campus.
“I thought that since I was on my own, things would be different,” she said. “But I realized that without community it’s very hard to live out your faith.”
Her experience with the Newman Center and Project Haiti showed her how “life-giving” that support is.
“Becoming involved and seeing how on fire this community was made me really want to deepen my faith and know more,” she said. “The friendships I formed are very authentic because we are all on the same journey to the same place, and we are trying to get each other there. There’s a lot of strength in that.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.