"Isn’t he sooo cute!” coos Amy. She is not talking about some fraternity boy she’s in love with. She’s melting over John Paul II chanting a Latin hymn on a CD she has brought with her on retreat. Only the pope is that kind of cute. Even after 15 years of working with young people, such moments still strike me as odd. Yet, odd as it may seem, I hesitate to label Amy a freak or even a conservative (though she might be happy to describe herself as such). I know Amy, and coming from her this is not odd. She’s one of the many college students I meet from day to day, each searching for God in his or her own way. When it comes to things Catholic, she may be extreme and at times even closed-minded, but not more than many other students at a Catholic college or university. The difference is that other students are extreme about things like alcohol, sex, their studies (sometimes) and maybe even social justice. Many of us who work at universities are accustomed to seeing these extremes as normal and, in the case of the last two, even laudable. Yet, while we are inclined to forgive the students these “normal” obsessions, we sometimes tend to see the love for the pope and enthusiasm for the Catholic faith expressed by students like Amy as weird and even dangerous.
Amy is one of the more enthusiastic members of a group of traditionally minded students I began working with this year. When I walked into their first meeting last year, attended by 40 students, I wondered how I would be received. Would it be as the “liberal Jesuit,” of whom some of them had been taught to be suspicious, sent perhaps to disabuse them of their faulty notions about Catholicism? They had no way of knowing that I had been much like them during my college years, struck by the newness of things I had not been previously taught about my faith, eager to know and put into practice what it meant to be Catholic, zealous and, yes, sometimes extreme and closed-minded.
I had no agenda for my work with them. I just wanted to get to know them, and I hoped they would want to get to know me. What good could I do them if I didn’t start there? So often what we know of such students is not who they really are, but who we imagine them to be (usually either someone who thinks as we do, hence worthy of praise, or someone who thinks the opposite, and so subject to our criticism)—not unique individuals with names, just some predetermined set of character traits and opinions. But in my experience, things are much more complicated than that. Let me introduce you to some of my students.
Some, like Amy, were easy to get to know. Physically imposing, vocal and passionate, like a town crier she led the effort to rouse the whole campus to celebrate the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s pontificate.
The mouse-like and gentle Tara, while physically and temperamentally the opposite of Amy, was just as serious about her faith and especially fierce—though in a gentle way—in her promotion of pro-life causes.
I thought I had Alex, a freshman, pegged as far too serious, rigid and kind of scary (this was prompted by his graphic explanation of why Dante’s Inferno was his favorite book), yet by the end of the year he was one of the more relaxed and open of the group. Alex even surprised us all by being a finalist in a sorority contest. When asked, “What’s your favorite pick-up line?” he told how he would kneel down next to a pretty girl in church and ask, “Confess here often?”
Peter, an introverted aspiring folk-singer/rock star was harder to get to know, but at his concerts he became more transparent. His songs betrayed what he was thinking about. In the spring semester, he took my ethics class, which gave us the opportunity to talk about serious issues, like the Iraq war, and not so serious ones, like our common interest in superheroes.
Mary, quiet and unassuming, with a dry sense of humor, participates in the group’s meetings, sings in the choir for Mass, and joined us for both the protest at the School of the Americas and our alternative Mardi Gras mission to Mexico.
Laura, though devout, is far from the stereotypical prude. She is petite, her language peppered (more like sauced) with the word “like.” In appearance, she is hardly distinguishable from other young women her age, except that her form-fitting baby-T’s frequently carry announcements like, “Mary is my homegirl.”
Christopher was this year’s homecoming king, and he is trying to bring back the 80’s “popped collar” fashion.
Jessica, who struggles with her relationships in a dysfunctional family, wants certainty for herself and everybody else. She got married this year and speaks enthusiastically about her N.F.P. classes. Without the confidence of her faith, her personal struggles might have kept her from getting this far. On her wedding day, just after graduation, she lit up the church with her smile and raised her arms in triumph.
This is not the homogeneous group one might expect (their names, by the way, have been changed to protect their privacy), and you’d be surprised that, while sharing certain affinities, they are as different in their individual opinions and beliefs as they are in character. This becomes apparent during our meetings, which consist of reflection and conversation about the coming Sunday’s Gospel, as well as a discussion focused on some aspect of the church’s teaching. The latter is usually presented by the students. Some limit themselves to material right out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but others explore their topic in more creative ways. Despite their seriousness, a few manage to make the presentation comical (albeit in a kind of nerdy way) with “Saturday Night Live”-style dialogues and puns using religious terminology, funny more for being deliberately bad than for their cleverness.
For the Gospel reflection, a different Jesuit priest is invited each week. I made gentle suggestions that a lay person, perhaps from the religious studies faculty, might be O.K. once in a while. But so far the only exception the group has made was to invite a soon-to-be-priest (me), once. And my clever (I thought) take on the Gospel—Jesus pulling a “bait and switch” on the ambitious James and John (Can you drink the cup? Wink, wink)—was only tepidly received. They prefer a more straightforward, academic approach. They showed more excitement at a later meeting about my decidedly drier review of the history and significance of priestly celibacy and its place in the context of our common vocation to chastity—which might have been a snoozer with another crowd.
Our lively discussions reveal that while some find in church teaching easy answers, others really struggle. But no matter how they may differ in their commitment to various interpretations of church teaching, what always comes through is their love for the church and enthusiasm about being Catholic. I’m reminded of my own youthful vigor for the church, which sowed the seeds of my Jesuit vocation.
As for their presumed aversion to “liberal Jesuits,” the way they admire and include a variety of Jesuits in their conversation and activities seems to suggest otherwise. This does not mean they are never critical, but I find them much more accepting and patient with us than we more mature Catholics often are with them. One of my favorite moments with them occurred the night some of them arrived at the meeting very troubled. It was pro-life awareness week. Although they had earlier that week adorned our statue of St. Ignatius Loyola with a T-shirt that said, “My mother chose life,” someone had now replaced it with one that simply said “Choice.” Campus security told them they could do nothing about it. Certain that Ignatius would not be keen on promoting that cause, and not wanting any of them to get in trouble, I climbed up and removed the T-shirt. Suddenly, I was the hero, not for being liberal or conservative, but just for being my Catholic and Jesuit self.
With these students, I have learned this year to question the inclination to see them as strange or dangerous. It pains me to see how some of my colleagues do not appreciate these students I’ve grown to love. Their devotion and eagerness to do what God wants (as they understand it) is often met with suspicion and consternation. They can become scapegoats for people’s animosities toward conservatism, especially heightened on a college campus. And I have grown weary of being congratulated for the great sacrifice I have made in choosing to be with these students. They are not perfect; they don’t have it all figured out. They’re adolescents, after all. But should they be disdained and spoken of in negative, hushed tones because they prefer to kneel at Mass, even in the absence of kneelers? Yes, they make us uncomfortable with their questioning, sometimes because they are arrogant and impertinent when they do it. And we should call them on that. But sometimes it’s because they are right.
My experience this past year has taught me a few things. When it comes to these students, ultimately it is not a matter of who is on the right or the left, or even who’s right or wrong, but of who they are and, to invoke the old Baltimore Catechism, who made them. The biggest detractors of these students were those who had made no effort to get to know them. The prejudices against them are born of old fights, old animosities and anxieties that too much love for the institutional church will somehow force us through a time-warp back to the 1930’s. That may be the desire of some of the Baby Boomers, but that’s not what these young people want. Rather, they want to be connected to their Catholic tradition in an age when it sometimes seems we are meant to apologize for it. Perhaps they have a rosary tucked in their pocket next to their cellphones and P.D.A.’s, but these are 21st-century kids. They have never known a time without John Paul II, the Internet, vernacular liturgy or the pop singer Madonna, even if they are more partial to the mother of God. They are their own new breed, thoroughly modern and unapologetically Catholic—which you will find out for yourself, when you get to know them.