Despite long odds, Anchorage youth keep spiritual walk alive at college
By MARY LOCHNER
Some would consider them countercultural. A group of college-age Alaskans are bucking a larger trend among young people nationwide who are abandoning the faiths in which they were raised.
According to a recent study from Georgetown University, young people in the United States, ages 18 to 24, are leaving religion in greater numbers than ever before. And the numbers of fallen-away youth are highest among those raised Catholic or mainline Protestant.
The study reports that although just 11 percent of today’s youth grew up in non-religious households, more than twice that number — one in four — are now religiously unaffiliated.
BUCKING THE TREND
Yuri Beans, a sophomore accounting major at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, converted to Catholicism about a year ago. Growing up in remote Mountain Village, he had attended Sunday Masses with his Catholic father but was never baptized. After his family moved to Anchorage, however, he started attending Lumen Christi High School where he learned about church teachings and history. This eventually inspired a conversion.
In college, however, Beans has seen firsthand the trend of Catholics moving away from the faith.
“At university, especially here in Anchorage with it being so secular … you have a lot of students with that mindset,” Beans told the Catholic Anchor. “And they’re baiting other students to get in with them. They want them to have that life it seems because they’re not happy on their own. They’ll hook ‘em in.”
Beans said connecting with fellow Catholic peers has helped keep his faith strong while in school.
“We’ve stuck so tightly together that we’re not allowing anybody else to get into that and try to take control of us,” he said. “We’re not letting Satan get control of us.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that Oriele Jones, a music education junior at UAA, made the decision to commit more fully to the Catholic faith in which she was raised. Jones credits her transformation to a course in church history at Lumen Christi High School.
“After learning church history, I could not see myself leaving the church,” she said. “In college I stopped hanging out with my regular group of friends, and started hanging out with friends from church more.”
Jones and Beans are both involved in the UAA Cardinal Newman club, part of a network of clubs across the United States that provide Catholic ministry on college campuses.
Jones and Beans say the Newman club connects them to a Catholic group while on campus. But the two don’t stop there: staying engaged spiritually in a variety of ways is essential to keeping the faith in college, they say. Both listed attending daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the young adult groups at St. Benedict and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishes among the ways they stay connected with Christ through their college years.
At St. Olaf’s Lutheran College in St. Paul, Minn., psychology junior Spencer Hodgson is keeping and spreading the faith with another Catholic college club — one with an evangelistic focus.
Hodgson, who grew up attending St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage estimates that there are about 600 out of the 3,000 students at his campus who are Catholic. Of those, he said, between 20 and 30 attend weekly meetings with the Catholic club.
The club is called St. Paul’s Outreach, and its motto is “Faith alive on campus.” In addition to attending club meetings, Hodgson said he plans to work this year as a student missionary with the club, traveling to nearby college campuses to seek out fallen-away Catholics and inviting them to Mass and club meetings.
Each of the weekly meetings include a time of worship as well as a talk on a religious topic, Hodgson said.
“It’s more of a charismatic community,” he said, “so the focus is community and growing together in holiness.”
Attending a Lutheran school has, in a way, spurred Hodgson to draw nearer to Christ in the Catholic Church, he said.
“It’s harder because there’s that anti-Catholic mentality from some Lutherans,” he said. “But it’s easier for us because some of the Catholics are feeling it, and they look for Catholic community like I did.”
TIME FOR PRAYER
College can present Catholic students with a perfect storm of temptation and schedule overload, Jones observed. With so many classes and activities, it’s easy to fall away from a habit of prayer and spiritual reflection.
“There’s definitely been times of temptation, where the best way to describe it would be a spiritual drought,” she said. “If I’m not dedicating as much time to prayer as I should be or doing any spiritual reading, I would lose focus and become self-centered. And then I’m not thinking about Christ or others as much as I’m thinking about myself and how I feel.”
“When I’m forcing myself to go to daily Mass, it happens less frequently, of course,” she added. “I’m receiving the sacrament. I’m reminded to pray. But when I become overwhelmed [at school], it becomes very emotionally exhausting because that’s when I don’t make time for prayer.”
Reaching out to Catholic peers is a good way to break out of that cycle, Jones observed. Another strategy she has taken up recently is getting in touch with a spiritual director.
“I think a lot of why people leave is because they have a lot of questions but don’t have a reliable source to ask,” she said. “Having a mentor, someone you can trust and confide in to answer your question, is helpful.”
Beans also credits having a spiritual director for keeping the faith in college. He and Oriele both have priests for spiritual directors.
Another practice that Beans said is essential to his spiritual life is going to adoration at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“They have perpetual adoration, and that really helps out,” he said. “It’s a great way to clear your head and to let God come in and take control when you really need it the most. And just being in the presence of Jesus Christ and the Eucharist, it’s always mind-blowing to be there every week.”
But when it really comes down to it, Hodgson said, adulthood is a time when Catholics must take personal ownership of their faith or else they can lose it.
“That’s what happens to everyone,” he said, “unless you find a community and make sure you’re doing things like daily prayer.”