Saturday, January 21, 2017


How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students.  By Aurora Griffin, Ignatius Press, 2016.


Many religious parents mourn the fact that a disturbingly large number of young people graduate from college considerably less religious than when they entered.  This is a common problem, no matter where one goes, though many of the most prestigious universities is the nation are known for being particularly secular.  On the television series The Sopranos, even though the titular parents made their living through organized crime, during the second season Tony and Carmela Soprano were particularly concerned about their daughter Meadow’s choice of college, worrying that the feared evangelist atheist influence of Berkeley would prove to be detrimental to their daughter’s spiritual life, leading Carmela to use whatever influence she had at her disposal in order to nudge her daughter towards Georgetown.


Aurora Griffin is a recent Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar who studied philosophy at Oxford, and plans to pursue a career in business.  How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard is her first book, where she describes her undergraduate faith life, where she describes how she maintained and expanded her religiousness in an environment that was not particularly conducive to faith.


In his introduction to the book, Peter Kreeft writes,


“Few things can be more important than the faith of the next generation.  The future of our civilization, that is, the goodness and truth and beauty of our culture, depends on the Source of all goodness, truth, and beauty, God; and the umbilical cord to God is faith– not just faith in anything, but the Faith, the one God invented, not us.  And the Faith is not automatic (it doesn’t just “happen”), not is it genetic (God has no grandchildren); it must be rediscovered, reaffirmed, chosen, and kept anew by each generation.  If it falls into the abyss of the current “generation gap,” our culture will fall into an abyss of even greater nonsense, immorality, and ugliness than it already has.  Nothing is more practical than drawing a line in the sand here and now.


And no place is more important than the university, because the university has replaced the church, the state, and even the family as the primary teacher and cultural determinant.  Everyone who is influential in our culture is formed by the university: media people, pastors, teachers, politicians, scientists, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, creative writers, journalists– almost everyone but rappers and professional football players.  This is the battlefield, now is the battle, and here is a very good set of weapons.”


The “weapons” in question are a series of tips that Griffin advises as a means of maintaining a vibrant religious life.  The forty tips are divided into sections: “Community,” “Prayer,” “Academics,” and “Living It Out.”  Of course, this book presupposes that that the person reading this book has a strong interest in staying Catholic and living a religious life throughout college and afterwards.  For the already lukewarm or disinterested young person raised Catholic, there may be little incentive to take the extra steps to strengthen one’s faith life, nor is there any particular desire to avoid the entertainments and distractions that lead many young people away from traditional Catholic morality.


There are a wide variety of tips, ranging from engaging in an assortment of religious activities to maintaining a diverse and supportive group of friends.  In each case, Griffin provides her own autobiographical experiences, explaining how each of these steps helped her.  At times, it seems like Griffin was constantly under pressure from all sorts of directions to drift into a state of unbelief or at least to start ignoring the tenets of the Church. 


She writes:


“For a Catholic going to a secular university, it is all too easy to get swept up in what the world says is important in college.  The attitude at most secular universities is that college is about having fun and finding yourself by casting off old ways of thinking, leaving your faith and values behind.  For many, it becomes about partying and embracing radical philosophies.  A worldly lifestyle promises glamour and excitement and fulfillment, but in the end it is empty.  Only as we become the people God made us to be, do we become freer, happier, and more ourselves.” 


One of my favorite experiences in college is when an acquaintance did the math to figure out just how much a single fifty minute class cost, when subtracting food and housing from the annual tuition and dividing appropriately.  I don’t have the exact number, but about fourteen years ago, every missed class was approximately $180 down the drain.  My acquaintance and I put that line on the dormitory whiteboard as a kind of motivator for the hungover students who believed that attending class was optional.  The cost has gone up dramatically in recent years, and as Griffin points out, there are many intangible and priceless benefits from college that may be missed through improper use of time.


It continues to baffle me how many young people believe that they are paying tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars a year for a four-year bacchanal.  Griffin observes that college is more than just paying large sums of money and taking tests in order to get a diploma.  College is an opportunity to learn and grow, but as personal observations have shown me, many college students grow less mature, less creative, and less intellectually curious.  Griffin argues that to be a better student, a better person, and a better Catholic, you have to continually strive to be stronger– if your faith (or intellect) isn’t growing, it’s probably shrinking.


Griffin writes:

“It was my faith that kept me studying late at night when I was tired because I felt obligated to be a good steward of my opportunities.  It was my faith that served as the reference point for all my studies, rendering no lecture of assignment irrelevant.  It was my faith that led me to meet a great group of friends, whom I’ll cherish the rest of my life.  It was my faith that kept me out of the dangers and drama of the college party scene.  Because I made these decisions– to work hard, to invest in good people, to avoid trouble– my time in college was both successful and happy by secular standards.  And I gained so much more than that from my faith.  My college years meant something.  I grew in the most important thing of all: knowing God.  And after graduation, I stepped into the world with a peace and a sense of purpose that even my most successful secular friends do not have.”


If college students are determined to burden themselves with crushing debt and spend the better part of their weekends with their heads in public toilets, there is little their parents or anybody else can do to stop them (unless their parents decide to stop paying tuition).  This is one young woman’s testimony as to the importance of her religious faith in her life, and the effort she was willing to make to keep it.  Not every college students shares her tenacity and dedication, but her personal experiences are inspiring, and Griffin’s enthusiasm for being Catholic radiates off the page.


–Chris Chan