Being a mother—my primary occupation for the past twenty-five years—is the most wonderful piece of good fortune that I have ever had. It is also a job where success is measured out in gradually larger helpings of loss. Parenthood means letting go, over and over and over again, the stakes getting higher as the years pass. Whether it is discreetly following an ambitious nine-month old who has decided to tackle the stairs, letting a nine-year-old don hockey gear and pursue his NHL dream at the local skating rink, or putting a nineteen-year-old on a plane to the Middle East for language study (and not exhaling until he returns three months later), we parents regularly have to jam our hands in our pockets to keep from clinging to these precious people as they head out the door. We hope that they have absorbed all the sage advice we have imparted over the years (and up until the minute the plane door closes), but in the end, we have no choice but to relinquish the illusion of control, trusting that we have done enough to guide them as they grow up.

For my children’s generation, growing up has become unprecedentedly complex, challenging—and lengthy. In his Souls in Transition, sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame points to the social and cultural trends that have changed the game for young adults. Higher education has expanded to a far broader population than in the past. The average age of marriage has been delayed into the mid-to-late twenties. Transformations in America’s economy, and the world’s, have darkened the prospects of job security and career stability and emphasized the need for ongoing training and even re-invention; some young people spend up to ten years trying out different job and career paths before settling on one. Parents who have the resources are providing far more assistance to their young adult children than in the past, and many more of those children are moving back home after college. The result is a prolonged period of transition, marked by vacillation between fetters and freedom.  “Emerging adults,” as they are now known, go through an extended phase of self-exploration accompanied by uncertainty and confusion, a focus on self, and the feeling of being “in between.” Counterbalancing these challenges is the sense of almost limitless options, with parallel feelings of optimism and hope. As these almost-grown-ups totter like toddlers between dependence and autonomy, they experience the exhilaration of experimentation and the anxiety of instability. By any measure, it is not an easy time.

Among the tasks that face any emerging adult who has been raised in a family where faith matters—hardly a given in our so-called “post-Christian” culture—is the need to come to terms with the religious faith of his or her childhood. This process may begin in college and extend well into one’s twenties. It may have a variety of outcomes. Some young adults jettison religion altogether, floating indifferently into the secular mainstream, for a time or forever.  Others manage to hold onto the faith they learned as children, making incremental alterations to fit their more mature and cosmopolitan souls. Still others find new spiritual identities by converting to an entirely different faith tradition.  

From a Catholic parent’s perspective, this bumpy stage of the faith journey can be an especially discomfiting experience. Observing the falling off of a child’s Mass attendance, hearing doubt or skepticism about cherished beliefs, sensing hostility towards church teaching—all these may well engender concern and even alarm about the faith of the next generation. As parents, we long for and pray for any tools that might help our children, or ourselves, manage this time of change and disruption.

Along comes Aurora Griffin, 2014 graduate of Harvard, Classics major, Rhodes Scholar, with her book How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students. Subdivided into four units—Community, Prayer, Academics, and Living It Out—the book offers practical advice to young Catholics for growing in their faith during their college years. The underlying message of the title, of course, is that if the author could maintain and increase her faith at the godless bastion of secularism known at Harvard, students anywhere can do the same (although my hunch is that a book titled How I Stayed Catholic at Central Michigan University would not be quite as marketable).  



WHAT TO MAKE of this book? Not unlike the young adults for whom it is written, How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard seems unsure of its identity. Griffin aspires both to write a personal testimonial and to assemble a universal toolbox for college students. Unfortunately, the genre-hedging dilutes the book’s impact. Material that might make an interesting memoir of one young woman’s approach to guarding her faith from worldly encroachments sounds preachy when couched in the vocabulary of self-help. For example, reflecting on her successful campaign to prevent a Satanic black mass on Harvard’s campus—which garnered national press attention—she cites abortion as another evil that staunch young Catholics should fight, piously assuring her readers, “Your courage in defending life will be a jewel in your heavenly crown.”

As a reader, I approached this book wearing metaphorical bifocals, interpreting it from two distinct perspectives: as a fellow Harvard alumna who has many experiences in common with the author, and as the parent of four young adults. Like Griffin, I majored in Classics at Harvard (studying with some of the same professors she cites in her acknowledgements). Like her, I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Like her, I managed to sustain and even deepen my faith throughout my four years at Harvard. Beyond the shared credentials (and three decades in age!), however, our roads diverge. 

For starters, I did not stay Catholic at Harvard because I did not arrive Catholic at Harvard. Rather, I was a devout Episcopalian: years in the church choir, meaningful engagement in Episcopal youth groups, dynamic young priests as mentors and role models, a family in which the practice of faith was a given. In college, I maintained this trajectory, participating faithfully and happily in the worship life of Harvard’s Episcopal Chaplaincy. I suppose I was one of those Protestants whose “misguided belief[s]” Griffin is at pains to correct for her readers in Chapter 5, “Explore Christian Fellowships” (although she does concede, “there are so many things I admire about Protestants”).

After graduation, my story and Miss Griffin’s diverge further. My time at Oxford marked the beginning of a wilderness period where faith deserted me, or perhaps more accurately, I deserted faith. Those were years of spiritual uncertainty and intellectual insecurity. I was at sea, and—through no fault of the Episcopal Church—I simply could not find what I needed in the faith of my childhood. Eventually, thanks to some providential encounters with Jesuits and the devout religious observance of the man who would become my husband, I found my way to Catholicism, which has been my home now for more than twenty years.  

I was drawn to the Catholic faith not by its institutional framework of rules and requirements, which seem of paramount importance to Griffin (see Chapter 6, “Just Be Catholic”), but by the prospect of its spiritual and intellectual expansiveness. I had the sense that I was entering a garden of religious delights, through which flowed a deep and life-giving river of theological inquiry, liturgical beauty, and spiritual conversation, where walked giants of the past like Thomas Merton, Ignatius of Loyola, William Byrd, Julian of Norwich, Edith Stein, and Dorothy Day. Dante’s description of Eden in the closing cantos of Purgatorio captures it:  la divina foresta spessa e viva, or in the translation of Robert M. Durling, “the divine forest, thick and alive.” It was the rich variety of ways to be “Catholic” that drew me to the faith, not a monolithic culture that laid down “musts” and “oughts.” Had I not lost one faith, I would not have found the other, which makes me a bit more trusting of the journey away from home base. 

Three decades have passed like a flash, and now I have children the author’s age, granting me a second perspective on Griffin’s book. Two are recent college graduates, one is midway through college, and the youngest is in high school. Recognizing that I am not Griffin’s intended audience, I empaneled these four age-appropriate experts to advise me. Although actual practice varies slightly among the four, as far as I am aware each of them still maintains a meaningful connection with the Catholic faith. I hand-picked a few chapters—for a child who had participated in Greek life in college, Chapter 4, “Join a Catholic Fraternity or Sorority,” and for the teenaged digital native, Chapter 37, “Consume the Right Media”—and asked for their responses.  

While there was some variation, they all agreed that the book seemed targeted to a very specific audience and that they were not that audience. They did not relate to the author’s extreme piety, which extends to starting a chapter of the Catholic sororal organization the Daughters of Isabella, or to the insularity of her social network, which seemed to consist mostly of like-minded Catholics (even though one of her tips is “Make Friends Who Aren’t Like You”). An example: she rhapsodizes about her sorority experience, “We got to look at what it was like to be Catholic women—to talk about motherhood, Marian spirituality, and becoming nuns.” This did not resonate with my sorority alumna, to put it mildly. I know more than a few college-aged women, and many young Catholic women in general. I cannot imagine them talking about motherhood and becoming nuns; it doesn’t mean they don’t, and it doesn’t mean these are not worthwhile topics, but there is a world of other issues for devout women to talk about—Walker Percy novels, Pope Francis’s encyclicals, the role of religion in public life, or ethicist Sr. Margaret Farley’s Just Love, to name a few.

These are not for our author, who positions herself squarely on the conservative end of the Catholic tradition. While my reviewers keep the faith, they don’t feel at home in the world of black-and-white pieties: they have friends of wildly diverse backgrounds and views, and they question some of the teachings of the church that seem to run contrary to what their divinity school-trained mother might call the sensus fidelium, and they don’t see any of this as inconsistent with being Catholic, at least so far. While I don’t consider it fair to judge a book because I take issue with its opinions, I did find the section on theological dissent rather scary coming from such a young person. And as a happy veteran of the institution, I dearly wish Griffin had not presumed to share her understanding of marriage: “At its best, marriage offers the consolation of companionship, sex, and security. But marriage also involves incredible self-sacrifice and personal risk.” Well-intended as it may be, coming from a twenty-three-year-old, this has a false ring to it.  


GRIFFIN'S WORLDVIEW IS relevant here in that it hinders her from reaching the mainstream Catholic students who might otherwise benefit most from her tips. The secular forces that seep into the culture of even the most Catholic universities, let alone the religiously unaffiliated ones, do not exactly encourage religious commitment, nor do they naturally embrace faith perspectives. Yet the treacly, sanctimonious tone she adopts is likely to turn off any student (other than a fellow conservative Catholic) who might pick up this book. I have trouble actually envisioning college kids practicing the Opus Dei “heroic minute,” which is “when your alarm goes off in the morning and you spring out of bed, kiss the floor, and offer up your day to God.”  These and other experiences are not described or explained in a way that would appeal to worldlier or less pious kids.

To be sure, with confusion about the overall purpose and direction of higher education, rising economic pressures, the proliferation of identity politics, and a dysfunctional sexual environment marked by hook-ups and roiled by cases of sexual assault, the culture of many colleges and universities feels morally adrift. As Donna Freitas observed in her eye-opening book on sex and religion on college campuses, Sex and the Soul, it is not so much the formal religious affiliation that makes a difference, but the presence of a powerful religious culture that is “meaningfully integrated into campus life.” Aside from evangelical colleges, how many institutions of higher education truly have such a culture? (And before alumni of Catholic colleges take to the email ramparts, consider Freitas’s finding that “though many students at Catholic colleges profess attachment to an amorphous spirituality, traditional religious attitudes and practices among them are negligible.”)

What, then, accounts for the fact that some students manage to hang on to their faith? The answer is both encouraging, and not: as Christian Smith summarizes, “The best predictor of where people are going is where they have come from.” Or to paraphrase James Carville’s famous line, “It’s the parenting, stupid.”

Simply put, the easiest way for a student to stay Catholic in college is to have been brought up Catholic. Young adults who have been brought up within the Catholic tradition—religious education; the sacraments of reconciliation, First Communion, and confirmation; youth group participation; even a simple thing like grace before meals—start college with a huge faith advantage. Indeed, many students who were religiously unaffiliated or identified themselves to Freitas as merely “spiritual,” attributed their lack of a developed spiritual life or religious practice to their parents’ reluctance to impose on them in matters of faith and belief. This hands-off approach left students without any mooring at a time in their lives when they most needed it. Often these parents were reacting to their own strict and coercive upbringing, which they did not want to impose on their children. In other cases, lip service was paid to church attendance or religious-education classes, but there was no religious sensibility or practice woven into the fabric of family life.  Freitas sums it up:  “The broader familial message was that religion wasn’t that big a deal, expendable even.”  

Aurora Griffin is clearly one of the fortunate few whose parents did not consider religion expendable—she begins one chapter with an anecdote about her father brandishing airline tickets to send her to a silent retreat the weekend after her high-school graduation. She was well-grounded in Catholicism by the time she arrived at Harvard, and she seems to have dug deeper, if not wider, into her faith once there. Her approach is neither supple nor particularly engaging, but it worked for her.  

The subtitle of the book—40 Tips for Faithful College Students—points to the limitations of the author’s approach. Griffin preaches to a choir of the already-faithful: conservative young Catholics just like her, who find meaning in Eucharistic adoration and attending Opus Dei retreats. Perhaps their numbers are growing on college and university campuses around America, but they are not the audience that most needs advice. Rather, it is the thousands of emerging adults, unmoored from a belief system and uncertain of how to integrate school, life, and faith, who could benefit from such a handbook. The book that needs writing would show everyday college students—B+ kids, in faith matters as well as academics, not the outstanding Christian soldier-students like the author—how religion is relevant to their lives, and why faith matters as they go about the work and the play of college. Any takers?

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, chairs the  board of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

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Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: View Contents
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