Effective Catholic mission and ministry to university students is something that I have cared deeply about since my time at the University of Sheffield and now in my role as a trustee for the Catholic Student Network. Our vision is to see Catholic students raised up as missionary disciples, leaving higher education with a deeper awareness of God’s call on their life and going on to be leaders in the Church.
Here, I want to outline three key things that I believe the Church can do to improve its mission to university students.
1 Build community
The first thing is to encourage the building of faith-filled communities at university. This can start small, as Jesus tells us, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ (Matthew 18:20).
Like all societies at universities, the organisation of Catholic students can be erratic and impulsive rather than measured and scheduled. Supporting individual students and group initiatives can be difficult due to these challenges and the fissile nature of a university campus, meaning that there is a tendency for projects to fall flat and lose momentum. However, if a movement captures students’ imagination it can have a huge impact in a short space of time.
It became clear to me during my time at university that the current student society leaders have the potential to become future leaders in the Church. They are volunteering their time to lead in their local Catholic community at a time when they are free of parental oversight which indicates a strong faith that they will likely carry into their adult years.
The investment in students and their communities needs to not be seen as a short-term project but instead, as a long-term strategy that looks ahead to the Church that we are leaving for the next generation of Catholics.
2 Encourage thinking faith
University students are beset with choice, with a huge number of societies and experiences to pick from. Choosing to continue to practice your faith as a student requires conviction and a knowledge of why growing deeper in relationship with God is even of value in the post-modern world.
To navigate this, students need an understanding and the ability to articulate why their faith is of importance to them and what it might offer to their peers. As St John Henry Newman famously said:
'I want a laity ... who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.'
An answer to this could also be to mirror student's human formation with their studies and to allow their faith to draw them into a deeper understanding of their degree material rather than seeing studying and university culture as incompatible with a life with God.
To have a ‘thinking’ faith modelled, both pre-university and at university, will help students to see their years of study as an opportunity to start living an adult spiritual life that can embrace both faith and reason.
3 Encourage a deep love of the Eucharist & the Sacramental life
Many young people have received very little effective faith formation before arriving at university. Notably, Christian truths have often been swapped out for hedonistic self-help advice. This can have the effect of shifting a young person's perspectives, making them the most important person in their life instead of God.
This perspective is dangerous, especially for a generation of young people who have grown up in uncertain and destabilising times. Most young people have grown up with social media and the virtual world in which a lot of attention is given to physical looks and to showing that you are, at least outwardly, 'living your best life'. Many young people have also grown up without parental security and the experience of unconditional love.
It is no wonder then why young people today experience so much anxiety. The time of pandemic has only accelerated this shift, with students reporting high levels of loneliness, anxiety and stress, which have been reflected in higher levels of mental health diagnoses.
The Church can offer young people another way. Firstly, by shifting the perspective back to God being the most important person in our lives. The Eucharist and the Sacramental life give us a way to shape our lives around Him.
The Church and its sacraments are the ultimate guide to a holy and fulfilled life, acting in response to supreme authority and the Lord of all. The need for authority can be discovered by submitting our lives in obedience to the will of God and in return receiving all that He has for us – the source and summit of this being the Eucharist.
It is worth saying too that we cannot assume that young Catholics arriving at university already understand the Eucharist and the Sacramental life. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that 69% of US Catholics believe that the bread and wine used in Mass “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” This is likely the case in the UK too.
We should not feel nervous about encouraging young people in the Sacramental life because, through the sacraments, God continues to show his transformational power in the world today. The Church really does have a way of life that can help young people to flourish at university, giving them the ultimate context for their lives as loved and cherished children of God.
Ben Plimmer is a founding trustee of Catholic Student Network and can be contacted at email@example.com. For more on the Catholic Student Network, go to www.catholicstudentnetwork.co.uk
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