High school graduation marks the end of the nesting period and the beginning of quasi-adulthood. Parents are a weird mix of merry and melancholic, while many graduates are saturated by relief, excitement and panic.
The nostalgia of graduation season leads me to an observation that applies to rising college freshmen, and to all of us, really.
Each year I watch the seniors leave our Youth Ministry program, and (thanks to the newsfeed on Facebook) it’s not terribly difficult to hear about their post-high school lives. Some are in better shape than others. Some weather their first year and keep the faith, others are beaten back, have fallen and are unsure if they should/can get back up.
Thinking back to my own experience, college was to be a time unlike any other. I wanted to find myself through new friends, a course of study and a wealth of opportunity and extracurricular activity. I wanted to find myself. And, this was exactly how I began things, uncertain and fairly open to being tossed about the varying ideological winds that blow as they please on college campuses. Observing the actions of the teens from our program, my life and the lives of my friends makes it clear that this search for self comes to the fore during the university years.
My lifelong search for happiness and meaning finally reached a crux point during that freshman year. It was a point both low and high at the same time. It was the moment of conversion. Christ, after all these years, was actually the answer to the search. After all I’d gone through, the pain and torment of looking about; the answer had actually been given to me long before, when I was not even a month old, at my Baptism.
Reflecting upon these teens, my own experience, and the experiences of my friends, beckons the question: How is it that some of these Catholic students thrive in college – even in the most hostile and secular of university settings – while others find themselves on a treacherous path, even at Catholic schools?
They embraced the answer they already discovered – the person of Christ.
Clinging to the answer made all the difference in the lives of my friends who managed to stay the course in college. And, it will make all the difference in the lives of the teens that leave our Youth Ministry program. The varying college experiences will still be there, but an answer, a foundation, has already been named. If one believes this Fact, grasps it and lives it, any university environment can become a place of ongoing conversion, as opposed to one downtrodden by temptation.
Pope Benedict, in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, spends an entire chapter examining the temptations of Christ in the desert. The temptations, here, correspond to life experiences at any given stage – pleasure, pride and power. Pope Benedict says, “At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” (pg. 28).
All of those questions about meaning, and finding myself, and happiness, are answered in Christ. The senior in high school who has encountered the Living God in his or her life, only to move away and begin a new search, has missed the point…has left the Answer behind.
And, looking at this more closely, it is not only a danger for graduates heading to college.
At any point in our lives, the temptation is lurking, beckoning for us to look elsewhere for an answer. Is Jesus enough for us? What did He actually bring for us? A bunch of annoying and superfluous philosophies?
Pope Benedict responds:
He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory, their doxa, has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so. (pg. 44)
The answer has already been given, and so often we look elsewhere. Hardness of heart and doubt cast by our rationalistic, relativistic climate continues to place our faith lives in the grip of death. It’s like asking where the bathroom is at the stranger’s house, only to be directed into the bathroom to ask the question again.
Is Christ the answer to what we’re looking for in life, or is He not?
These thoughts about temptation and lasting happiness from the Holy Father bring to mind Jesus’ question to his apostles following the Bread of Life discourse. (John 6:66-69) reads:
As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
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