My Life

Do I HAVE to go to a Catholic College to Stay Catholic?

As I was finishing up high school, I primarily remember the great anxiety I felt over making (what I thought would be) the biggest, most important, most monumental-earth-shattering decision of my life. College. This led to incessant questions and, of course, googling.

Let me paint a picture for you really quick — you know, to really let you in on the level of anxiety I was feeling over the monumental-Earth-shattering decision I was trying to make here.

Decisions, Decisions

I vividly remember sitting crossed legged in my chair during yearbook.

I’d just like to point out, really quick, that this was a seated position which, let’s just say, was not endorsed by my school teachers at my sweet, Catholic all-girls school – which I loved – but what can I say, I was a rebel at heart and a big fan of comfort.

Anyway, back to sitting cross-legged in my chair during yearbook. I was frequently told not to sit like this but there I was. It was 2013. My senior year. I was spending my time browsing the internet on my laptop instead of editing copy, as a copy editor should have been doing.

My google search bar history probably looked something like this:

If I had Siri back then, she probably would’ve wanted to slap me. But at the heart of all of my incessant google-searching was wanting to know what would be the best fit for me. My parents were extremely open-minded and not-at-all-limiting of my choices – which was GREAT – but it only meant that I could literally go anywhere and that idea was very daunting to me. On the other hand… The world was my oyster! MY OYSTER! (Or maybe something that is not a sea-faring mollusk).

And while the prospect of control over my own life choices made me very power-hungry and excited (naturally), I knew deep down that I only wanted what was truly best for me. And while I sat there, panic-searching in yearbook class, my heart full of questions, I knew that my dream college was a very well known Catholic university. I was dazzled by the school colors and the prestige and the shiny dome… the only thing was I didn’t really want to move so far, and I definitely didn’t want to be in debt. Besides all the financial reasons, I had already known, due to my many years of Catholic education thus far, that it wasn’t the school that made the Catholic. It is the Catholic that makes the Catholic.

That is, you don’t have to go to a Catholic college to stay Catholic. In fact, I think it is precisely because I attended a *huge* state school with the most vibrant Catholic student center in all the land that I am Catholic today.

I know what I am about to say might be controversial. Don’t. Get. Me. Wrong. Catholic schools are great. You should go to one if you feel that the Lord is calling you there. All I am saying is that Catholic schools are very rarely the sole reason why anyone (anyone that I know at least) stayed Catholic past high school.

WHOA. Controversial. I told you.

It’s Your Yes

I ended up going to that big state school, whose Catholic student center is quite literally world-famous for the magnitude of ministry and level of real, authentic, active discipleship that is happening there. Serving about 17,000+ Catholic students on a daily basis, that place is truly *thriving.* There are far more dynamic Catholic leaders and vocations coming out of that place than surrounding Catholic colleges – and you know why I think that is? Because it is a mission field that puts every effort into the task of making disciples and sending them forth to evangelize the campus (and the whole world).

By the time I decided on going to the aforementioned state school I was not a disciple. Far from it. I was living with one foot in my faith (more like my pinky toe) and the other foot in the world. I felt that going to this place would give me the option to explore the world and all its glory and parties and fun, and like, if I wanted to be “fully Catholic again” I could, like, walk to Mass if I wanted to. Basically, I was they call a cafeteria Catholic. But that would all change by my sophomore year. It’s as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Well, I had had that encounter. And my life took that decisive direction when I decided to cling to my Catholic identity, because of my encounter with the person of Jesus, truly present in His Church.

But it wasn’t my school that made that difference. To be Catholic in college — to stay Catholic in college — means you have to be prepared to fight for it. Whether you go to a private school or public school, staying Catholic becomes your responsibility. It’s your yes.

Fight the Good Fight

No matter where you go, it all comes down to you. A Catholic college doesn’t in any way secure a person’s faith in the same way that a secular college doesn’t in any way guarantee rejection of faith. Choosing what school you go to is a very personalized and personal experience – and ultimately your discernment shouldn’t be whether or not you should go to a Catholic school, but rather, what feels like the right fit for you and your family.

Ask yourself, Where does the Lord want me to go? Which school would bring out the best in me? What are my resources for building up my faith? Is there a vibrant Catholic community there? Is there a parish nearby with a chapel? How can I find like-minded Catholics to grow in the faith with? Which school feels more like home? Where would I grow the most? Where would I be challenged the most? What structures, if any, need to be in place in order for me to remain Catholic? What kind of community and ministries are there to be involved in? Am I able to hold myself accountable? Do I feel confident in my ability to stay deeply rooted in my faith, no matter what happens?

It’ll be your choice to decide how much of a priority your faith-life is, and as someone who has experienced higher education in both settings, I can tell you that it really isn’t the institution that makes you Catholic. At the end of the day, choosing which college to go to is about going where you think is the best fit for you and your life’s dreams. You can be Catholic anywhere. But you can’t, for example, get an engineering degree just anywhere.

Wherever you end up in life, it’ll be your choice to cling to your Catholic identity and to nourish your own spiritual life by going to Mass, receiving the sacraments, making time for daily prayer, and forming virtuous, authentic friendships. College is a crucial time during which you develop those habits which can build a solid foundation for a continued life of prayer and mission — if you continually create a space for the Lord to work on you during those formative years.

Don’t go to a Catholic college just to stay Catholic, and don’t go to a secular college for the sole purpose of being a “modern-day martyr,” fighting tooth-and-nail for your faith or with the intention of diving into the trenches and converting sorority row (even though, yes, there is value in all of that). Go to college and stay Catholic because that is what you are called to do. You are capable of maintaining your Catholic identity and growing in holiness anywhere — find yourself a band of like-minded Kingdom-seekers and become the saint you are made to be.

There are pros and cons to every school on your prospective list, and weighing the options can become very stressful – hence the panic-googling – but ultimately the Lord just wants you to say yes to Him. He is not limited by time or place. He does not discriminate. He can use any environment, any community, any degree or program to draw you close to Himself. Follow Him wherever He is leading you. As long as you are obedient to the Lord, open to His will for your life, and are loving, you’ll be exactly where you are meant to be.

About the Author

Laurie Medina

I am a Saint-in-progress with a missionary heart and a passion for merging Catholic ministry with mental health care. I love going on outdoor adventures, making art, listening to Penny & Sparrow, and surrounding myself with people that are way holier than me. As you’re reading this, I’m probably curled up on the sofa with a blanket reading Joy of the Gospel…or rewatching Gilmore Girls. You can find me on Instagram @wrappedinhermantle.