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.And here's some very good advice, not just for campus ministers, but for all of us:
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.
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.You know, this is perhaps the most rewarding part of working with college students. Actually getting to know these kids. As human beings, with all their struggles and triumphs. And my experience jives completely with Mark's. Yes there's a turn to the "conservative" for sure (it mirrors this trend in my own life. Or rather, my life mirrors this trend?). But there is such a desire for a vibrant, unapologetic Catholic identity, such a deep thirst for the riches of the heritage. It is quite heartening.
Of course, I haven't really encountered the prejudice Mark writes about (campus ministers worrying about "conservative" students). Well maybe a little in a different context (when talking about seminarians) from several DREs. We're in a part of the world were being conservative is, I guess, quite acceptable. Or maybe it's because there are so few Jesuits down here .... :-).
The vignettes of the students in the article are wonderfully done! I found myself thinking about so many of our kids here. And what really shines through is his love for these students. And one is reminded of St. Augustine's quote (not in the normal antinomian context this is often used): "Ama et fac quod vis."
[Mark, incidentally, is a USC alum. I believe, however, that he went to St. Peter's during his sojourn at Carolina. I guess not everyone is perfect ... :). He's also the author of the wonderful blog, "You Duped Me Lord." Here's a neat Advent suggestion: scroll through the archives and read along his posts on the text and commentary of St. Igantius' Spiritual Exercises.]