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How to keep my kids Catholic while in college

Step 1 is finding where to attend Mass and get to know community

Published: August 20, 2021      
Travis McAfee
University of Arkansas students pray during Mass Aug. 15 at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish on the campus of the University of Arkansas. Pastors and campus ministers are eager for young adult Catholics to attend Mass, Bible studies and other Catholic Campus Ministry activities to keep them connected to their faith.

Before coming to Harding University in Searcy, Julio Montenegro of Nicaragua spoke with his parents and pastor about the Catholic campus ministry. His pastor sent a letter to Father Polycarp Ssebbowa, pastor of St. James Church in Searcy. 

“They were waiting for me and once I arrived at St. James, they introduced to me all that has to do with the campus ministry,” Montenegro said, adding that it was important for him to stay connected to his faith in college. “ ... I just wanted to continue to be closer to God.” 

The 20-year-old senior said faith was his anchor. If parents do not build a faith foundation before their child leaves, it can be hard for them to stay on the Christian path.  


Getting lost

Liz Tingquist, diocesan director of campus ministry, snapped her fingers to explain just how quickly a college student can get out of the habit of going to Mass or fall away from their faith altogether. It’s important to establish a solid faith foundation while the student is still at home so their faith isn’t separate from their daily life, including going to Mass together, volunteering and participating in parish and diocesan youth events, whether the child is in a Catholic or public school. 

“I would say the majority of families don't prioritize their kids being involved in their faith … I’ve had some parents say, ‘Well, you know my daughter and my son, they just don't want to get into their youth group at church.’ It's like, when did you quit being the parent?” Tingquist said. 

Collin Gallimore, 20, a junior at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, had a strong faith growing up in Hot Springs. Freshman year, he convinced himself he didn’t have the time for CCM.

“A big thing for me last year was that I had a lot of trouble with my home life, with my family back at home,” he said, which shook his faith. “...  I didn’t have people to lean on anymore. I was closer to my small (Bible study) group and friends in that circle because they gave me that feeling of family that I was lacking at that time.” 


Why are you leaving? 

Flo Fitch has led campus ministry for 30 years at the Church of Christ-based Harding University in Searcy and Arkansas State University in Beebe. Most are international students, predominantly from Central America. 

“If they are strong in their faith in their countries, that is very much a benefit,” Fitch said. “I have had parents in previous years call and text me saying, ‘We’re so grateful you are there for our kids, our family.’” 

Religious ministries at Harding cannot advertise their religion or group meetings. It is all word of mouth. She said students have been drawn to other faiths because of more activities at other churches and contemporary music during services.

Tingquist said many former young Catholics are not practicing because of misunderstandings about Church teaching on LGBTQ issues. 

“LGBTQ is the No. 1 reason some of his (my sons) friends are not practicing their faith anymore because ... they don't understand the Church's teaching and how we embrace people,” she said. 

Kasey Miller, a campus minister for 11 years, said CCM at the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College, all in Conway, is there for help with tutoring, spiritual guidance and a safe space. She sees students put their faith on the back burner mostly in pursuit of perfection. 

“They fill their time with trying to chase that 100 percent, and grades are very important. But that’s a detriment to their mental and spiritual help because they don't have time for community,” she said. 


Encourage, don’t force 

When touring a college, finding the campus ministry should be included in the day. 

“I introduced my kids to whoever it was that was in charge of that,” Tingquist said of campus ministry. “I wanted them to know where the church was, or the chapel, on campus. And I gave those people my kid’s emails and cell phone numbers.”

Miller said parents encouraging, rather than pushing, makes a difference. 

“A lot of times this starts way before they get to college, asking them about their personal prayer life, asking them what sort of stuff interests them about the Catholic faith. More than, ‘Did you go to Mass? Did you go to CCM?’ she said. “ ... It creates a different atmosphere about faith rather than just an obligation.” 

Adam Koehler, campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville for six years, said parents should continue to be active in their own faith life while their child is at home and away and connect with campus ministry. 

“‘Hey, my kid has a home away from home and a safe place to build a community of friends,’” he said.

During phone calls, parents should ask their child about their spiritual wellbeing and prayer life, in a non-threatening way.

“My kids would call me with problems, one of the first questions I would say to them, ‘Have you taken it to the Lord? Are you praying? Because I promise you if you pray, it will lighten the load,’” Tingquist said. 

Montenegro said there are lonely times in college and prayer helps. 

“It is important to keep the prayer life active and also it is important to have someone like a friend or someone from the Church that is actively seeking you, asking you, ‘How are you doing?’” Montenegro said. “Even the parents can do that, but it is better when you find someone in college that is helping you to be closer to God.” 

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