Lent draws Catholic students to church

The season of Lent is a time for students to re-evaluate their faith.

Holly Miller

For the first time since she began college, for Ash Wednesday, first-year advertising student Kristy McFaul went to mass.

McFaul said she fell out of the habit of going to church because she didn’t have anyone to attend services with, but talk of Ash Wednesday allowed her to find friends who shared her faith.

Sunday marked the first official day of Lent – the 40-day Christian celebration leading up to Easter – and Catholic students at the University are using the season to re-evaluate their own faith.

Greg Weinand, who serves as campus minister and advisor to the Campus College Student Group, said he believes the Lenten season brings more students to church than usual because it serves as an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

“I didn’t know how many Catholics were at the ‘U,’ ” he said of his first year as Campus Minster, “until I came out of Ash Wednesday service at the ‘U’ with 200 people and saw people all over campus with the cross.”

But not all students lose the habit of going to church during college. Christen Leedom, a first-year communications student, attends mass on a weekly basis and said she makes sure to go to church on all holy days of obligation.

According to a 2005 survey in the National Catholic Reporter, 15 percent of the Millennial generation (ages 18-25) said they attend mass weekly or more, compared to 30 percent of young Catholics in 1987.

Leedom said keeping up her faith is important to her, though many other students make excuses for not attending church while in college.

“A lot of people don’t want to make the effort to get there,” she said. “Or a lot of people don’t feel it’s important at this point in their life.”

Weinand, who has been involved with Catholic youth programs at the University for 10 years, said he is not unfamiliar with the criticism the church often receives for not relating well to its youth members.

Since his arrival on campus, Weinand said he’s seen growth in the Catholic College Student Group and the St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center.

The Newman Center closed its doors in 1998, primarily because of financial problems and lack of a student presence, he said.

After combining with St. Lawrence, the Newman Center reopened after a year and now has 250 students involved on a weekly or biweekly basis and sees about 1,000 students a month through masses and various programs.

“What I’ve seen is a growth in a desire for students to have their own faith be relevant to them,” Weinand said.

Chris Vatsaas, president of the Catholic College Student Group, said a lot of students may stray from church involvement in college because they are finding themselves, and often that process leads to involvement in various organizations – religious or otherwise.

Weinand said he believes students often wonder why they are putting energy into a religion they feel is not helping to guide them, or they don’t find faith as exciting as other opportunities they have.

“Lives are so full in college, you start to say what’s important and what’s not,” he said. “Being invested in a faith group that is long-term sometimes isn’t all that exciting.”

For psychology senior Erin McMahon, Lent hasn’t done much for her spiritually. McMahon said she hasn’t attended Catholic services since receiving communion in grade school, and despite giving up something for Lent most years, she doesn’t think it will bring her back to the church.

“I don’t think I could ever go back to the Catholic Church,” she said. “I might find a different religion, but there is a lot of Catholic religion I don’t agree with.”

Oftentimes spring seems to bring out a new energy in students, Vatsaas said. Perhaps that, combined with Easter being a big component of the Catholic faith, brings students back to the church, he said.

Despite the common trend of students straying from Catholicism during college, 69 percent of Millennials said they would never leave the church, according to the National Catholic Reporter survey.

Vatsaas said he tells students who are newly involved or are returning to the church that the faith experience is more about “where you want to go, rather than where you’ve been,” meaning it is important to set goals outlining what you hope to get out of church.

“There is something about the Lenten season that makes students want to reflect on what they want to do with their faith and how they want to move forward,” he said.

After mass, McFaul said attending church reminded her that it is a positive experience.

“Lent is like New Year’s, but in the church,” she said. “It’s a big celebration in the church and a chance to set goals.”