Navigating the college waters is a tricky proposition for Catholic students: In some circles, they're judged for not being pious enough; in others, they're criticized for praying, attending Mass or even talking about faith.
"I think you say 'God' and people freak out a little bit," said Tinamarie Stolz, a junior at The College of Saint Rose in Albany. "People get very intimidated by that subject, which I think is sad and very unfortunate."
Ms. Stolz was part of a panel discussion on the spiritual lives of college students and organized religion's outreach to them, held last weekend at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany.
The panel also included a college senior who attends Mass alone but has taken on ministries at St. Vincent's and an alumnus who drifted away from Catholicism and now considers herself a "seeker."
All three were women. That fact reflects a concern about the spiritual lives of men, remarked on by Rev. Christopher DeGiovine, dean of spiritual life at CSR and a sacramental minister at St. Vincent's.
Finding one's center
"Certain values have taken over," Father DeGiovine said of college culture and beyond. "That need to dull the pain or to think you've dulled the pain with a drug of some sort is a massive problem. The American culture has replaced the center of the human person with drugs and sex."
Ms. Stolz said she routinely wages an "inner battle" between the "craziness" of college weekends and keeping faith in her life.
"There's a lot of discernment there," she said, adding that she dropped some elements of her faith when she first entered college.
But "I really struggled because that peace was missing, and I never really realized how empowering that peace was. I think that's what happens to a lot of college students."
Now, Ms. Stolz is a resident adviser who tells her charges they can party in moderation. She's also a leader in the campus' Girls for God group, encouraging dialogue about the fear of being judged for abstaining from partying.
"Even if you're falling on your face, you're still moving forward," she noted.
Why she left
The "seeker" on the panel, Carolyn Stallard, is a 2011 college graduate, now serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working with refugees. As a student, she taught faith formation classes at St. Vincent's, played the drums for several area churches and headed two different Catholic student groups.
Both of those groups fizzled out - and the lack of enthusiasm for religion on campus also affected her, she said.
"It was very hard to talk about this other part of me," she explained. Today, "I'm sure of where I stand, but it doesn't fit into a specific category. I have a faith in the unknown. I'm very big on just trusting that I am where I need to be."
One of the audience members was moved by Ms. Stallard's story, commenting: "As somebody who could be your grandmother, I'm still seeking. It keeps it dynamic. Everyone feels they don't belong in some way. My wish for all of you is you remain seekers for all of your lives."
What role can the Church play in these collegiate conundrums? Joan Horgan, director of campus ministry at CSR, lamented the growing gap between culture and faith tradition.
Church must change
"We've not done a great job" with bridging that gap, she said of the Church. "More or less, we're saying, 'Good luck with that,'" so conflicted students often simply drop their faith.
Father DeGiovine said the Church needs to change its priorities, noting that moral teachings and doctrine "are only a piece of Catholicism, but we've made it a litmus test. It's community: When most of us were younger, we found it in our Church," but now students find community on the internet or elsewhere. On college campuses, it's often found in service work.
The young panelists agreed that Catholic leaders need to be available on social media in order to relate to younger generations of Catholics - and Catholic Facebook pages need to allow for honest dialogue, urged Ms. Stolz, who's a communications major.
"You have a group of really lost people," she said. "How do you reach them? If there was a little more transparency between them and us, it would be really helpful."
Ms. Stolz also suggested improved education on the faith: "I think the Church needs to start investing in teachers and Sunday school. I feel like Sunday school can be such a strong, powerful thing."