Sep 232009

By Frank Wessling

Church. It’s something we talk about quite easily but may not think much about beyond a vague sense of bishops, priests and nuns in procession with a church spire in the background.

Certainly church is a place, sometimes even a building with a spire, where folks gather for special attention to God. Notions about God will vary widely, but among Christians they generally all find a home in a place we call church.

The gathering of people drawn to God also has the name church, sometimes capitalized — Church — to distinguish the community from its meeting house. And among Catholics the mental picture of the community usually starts with that procession of clergy and professed religious women. It’s a testament to our sense of church as something handed on through history, a tradition, a ready-made spiritual home.

But what happens when we are uprooted from a home place and set down in new circumstances starting a new phase of life, like the pioneer Catholic immigrants here in Iowa and the recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America? There was no ready-made church to take in the pioneers. And the later immigrants found no church expressed in their native languages.

All of them had to follow their personal spiritual longing and look for others to join with in new communities.

That challenge is not so different from what faces Catholic students going off to college. Most will go to public schools where there may or may not be a Catholic ministry presence on campus. Even if a campus ministry exists, it won’t be pushy and can’t be coercive, as Mom and Dad might be. It can only be inviting.

Most of the initiative to find church, to be church in new circumstances, must be with the young student fresh away from the home church.

In the busyness and excitement of starting college, this kind of pioneer activity can easily be dropped way down a student’s list of priorities. Young people who neglect religious practice that’s been part of life for them may report feeling freed from onerous routine. They may not notice a hole developing in their interior life – or the hole may have already started with slack attention to prayer and other religious action. They don’t yet know what follows as faith is weakened and drains from a life.

What we hope for these student pioneers is that they remain open to the religious home that has nurtured them this far while following their instinct to make church that fits their new situation; open to new questions, new materials for building.

The church of childhood won’t fit them well any more. As they desire maturity in fits and starts, they deserve to feel that a church deserving of them welcomes the same desire in spiritual and religious affairs.

As Catholics, our college student children have an advantage. They can find the Mass celebrated almost anywhere they go, if not on campus then at least at a parish in town. It requires an hour or so a week to attend a Sunday Mass, and this may feel like an intolerable burden to some. But an hour of quiet time, reflection time, by itself is valuable for a young student’s health.

Conscious participation in the Mass at this stage in life is an added bonus as the words, the metaphors, the symbols, the sacramental energy of the liturgy is absorbed in the young pray-er’s new challenges, new wrestling of conscience — firing up the possibilities of a larger God, a more impressive, exciting Christ stirring to life in the new land of a growing-up student. The pursuit of love and justice and life goals acquires new dimensions of depth and self-transcendence.

This is how church grows and the tradition keeps its light glowing. The clergy procession is window dressing, a nice camera shot, but not the story itself.

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