When asked why I like my school, the beginning of my answer is invariably “It’s a Jesuit university.”
I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school K-12. No, none of my teachers were nuns, and yes, I did have to wear a uniform. It wasn’t nearly as ugly as it could have been.
Generally, when people learn that I’m Catholic and have always gone to Catholic school, I can see them drawing conclusions about my person and my past in their heads. Rarely, though, does the picture they draw line up with my actual experience. Yes, I went to a Catholic high school, but instead of sheltering me from other world views and smothering me in an environment of solely like-minded people, it actually made the conversation of faith and how to practice it incredibly immediate. Children who are raised in Catholicism, who go to school Mass every week and listen to the priest delivery his homily in a gymnasium, fall very easily into the trap of apathy. They’re called “cradle Catholics”–people who are Catholic by default, because it’s how they were raised. In my experience, those of my peers who are Catholic “by default” either have little interest in their faith, or they end up raging against it. Some of the fiercest anti-Catholics I know were raised in a Catholic context.
My mother is Catholic, and my father converted to Catholicism a few years ago, having been raised Methodist. We go to Mass every Sunday, my brother was an altar server, and I joined the parish choir when I was seven. The presence of the Church in my life was never a question.
At some point, though, I realised that the external practice of Catholicism is meaningless without the internal intent, that elusive quality of “faith.” I made my Confirmation in ninth grade fully committed to pursuing my own definition of faith, but I never anticipated how difficult that journey might be. I couldn’t feel what I thought I was supposed to feel, my prayers felt empty and I grew increasingly frustrated. I was investing my time and energy and I felt like I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
The turning point for me was actually an argument. A friend and I were having a religious debate, he was agnostic, he was critical and difficult, but the more he challenged me the more I felt my own conviction. The more he forced me to explain myself, the more confident I felt in my beliefs. It was this exercise, this requirement to think, that made me embrace my faith more than any homily could.
In some ways, I envy my mother, who received her Confirmation as an adult. I respect her so much for having pursued her faith and made her choice entirely of her own volition. At the same time, I cannot imagine how different my life might have been if she had not insisted that I go to Catholic school, if she had not been there to ensure that I would share in Mass and the Eucharist.
Now, I find myself on a Jesuit campus, and the simple presence of both the Jesuits and the Scholastics is inspiring and comforting. I love seeing the black clothes and white collar. I love the conversations I stumble into–with people who have literally travelled the world, who are doing community outreach with the poorest parts of our city, who speak five languages, who are on fire with their faith to a degree that I find mind-boggling. Perhaps I could find this environment at any Christian university, but I have yet to hear of one with as much rigorous dedication to education and open discussion as the Jesuits.
I go to a Jesuit university, but we have a hall in the student centre with prayer rooms for students of every major world religion. We require two theology courses for graduation, but those courses could be Intro to World Religions or Intro to Islam. The amount of diversity and intellectual curiosity on campus is astonishing.
In one of my first weeks on campus as a freshman, I found myself at 9 pm Mass in one of the Jesuit residence buildings. I was in a tiny chapel, the west-facing window pitch black, the only illumination around the altar. There was a student at the piano, two more singing with him, and a cluster of students just like me who felt that Mass was the perfect way to spend a Thursday night. In that moment, I felt at home, even though I was away from family for the first time, even though I didn’t know any of the songs. I knew the prayers, and I recognised my own pursuit of faith in the faces of everyone around me.