Freedom. That’s what most of us crave, and university presents it to us on a silver platter. For many people, university will be their first time away from home. That sense of novelty – paying rent, organising a weekly shop, finding housemates – will soon turn into an array of choices. As a Christian, how do you navigate a course through those decisions whilst growing in your faith?
Here are a few ways to survive, and thrive, as a Christian at university.
1. Make a habit of church
So I wake up at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning, only to discover my parents are not forcing me to go to Mass. It’s a liberating feeling. What’s the point of religion if it doesn’t come from personal choice? During my first weeks at university, I went to Sunday Mass once, preferring to recover from a night out than attend church. But church is important and you can grow a conviction to be a part of that community. There are alternatives to the early Sunday routine. For example, the Saturday vigil Mass is a great way to stay connected with your faith whilst getting stuck into university life. Check out local parish news as well to see what else might be going on. Make a habit of church – you’ll find yourself wanting to go instead of being obliged.
2. Don’t live two separate lives
Whisper it, but students don’t actually spend the entire year at university. Academic holidays out of term can be long; many students spend a lot of time back home. The temptation is to forgo religion altogether at university and put it in a neat little box marked ‘home’. I speak from personal experience here, having only gone to Mass in term time when my parents were visiting. But God does work in us beyond the institutions of church, when we write an essay and prepare for an exam; God is with us when we spend time with friends, both on campus and back in our home towns.
3. Read the Bible, and then use it
There’s no point denying it: university can be tough for a lot of people. For me, returning to the Bible was hugely comforting. This amazing book contains the words of God, words of love and hope.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29: 11)
I read this passage so many times and it always brings me comfort and an inner drive to do God’s will. But it doesn't just stop there. Acquiring knowledge is pointless without sharing it with others. Talk about what you have read with your house and course mates. Look for opportunities to use teachings and quotes from saints in your academic work.
4. Be creative with prayer
Prayer life can really blossom at university. With so much time on your hands and so much going on, there is never a bad time to pray. Pray in the shower (your secret weapon), during study, in sports games, when on your own or with others. Find creative and different ways to soak your life in prayer. In the Catholic Church, we have the divine office to pray, which can be said at morning, evening and night. The Angelus prayer is said at midday. The rosary can be prayed when travelling. Graces can be said before and after meals. As well as the Mass, this is the greatest prayer that the church has.
5. Get to know your parish priest or chaplain
Your parish priest or chaplain will likely remain the same throughout your studies. They will support and guide you – but you need to make that step to ask a question, share a personal experience and develop that support link. Remember they are human, with a wide range of responsibilities. But the door is always open. The best way to gain trust is to attend confession. It is one of the healing sacraments. Even though the priest will hear your sins, he won’t judge you. He will aid you spiritually and give you a penance to show you are really sorry for your sins. Whatever burden you are carrying, the sacrament of reconciliation will help provide a measure of freedom and fullness in your faith.
6. Join in with parish life
Your university parish will most probably be your new one for the next three years. So helping out means you can settle in more quickly and meet new people. Identify where your gifts lie and use them in service. If you want to learn or have experience, become an altar server. If you are confident, volunteer to be a reader. If you are good at serving people, you can aid with post-Mass refreshments. If you want to get to know people, you can be a part of the welcoming ministry. If you have green fingers, you can help with the flower arranging and if you love to clean (you know who you are), then you’ll be able to help give the candlesticks a good polishing.
7. Find a Catholic society or SCM group
Catholic societies are a community of students who usually meet up for Sunday dinner, lectio divina and most importantly, the pub after Mass. Get to know the president of the society, who will provide advice and support in a way that isn’t as formal as chaplains or parish priests. If you want to connect with other Christians from different denominations, you should get involved with the Student Christian Movement (SCM). Try to find the nearest local SCM group, if the Catholic society is not affiliated. SCM is a great group of students that lead worship events and workshops, hold training events and connect you with hundreds of other Christian students around the UK.
8. Have fun
It sounds obvious, but university will be an amazing period in your life. But it’s also brief, so make sure you enjoy it. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean staying put in the safe environment of church or Christian societies. It means meeting new people and gaining new experiences. You’ve made the first step in choosing which course to study and which university to attend. Don’t agonise over the next choices you make.
"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9, N.R.S.V)
This blog post was written by Liam Williams, a third year drama student at the University of Aberystwyth.