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A Book Review… Outstanding Tips For Faithful College Students And Others

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How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard, by Aurora Griffin (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2016), 181 pp. $15.95. Available at or 1-800-651-1531.

Subtitled “Forty Tips for Faithful College Students,” Aurora Griffin’s book provides a valuable guide for parents and prospective students to avert the seductive temptations in higher education that beleaguer the young at prestigious secular universities.
Whether it is the dogmatic atheism that mocks “silly religious people,” the radical ideologies espoused by a majority of faculty and students, the moral relativism that rejects traditional norms or Christian morality, or the drug culture, binge-drinking, and casual promiscuity that infiltrate college campuses, the culture of the modern university endangers the faith of the young when they fail to know, love, live, and defend their religious convictions in an alien environment inimical to religious knowledge and divine truth.
Griffin’s “Forty Tips” all make excellent common sense and reflect an honest realism about the rigorous demands of serious academic life and the pursuit of spiritual life in an irreligious milieu. These tips include practical advice like memberships in a parish, Catholic student organizations, and a Catholic fraternity or sorority that form a natural environment for friendship and a shared moral view and religious sensibility.
The tips mention the simple but essential habits and disciplines that cultivate the interior life like “Pray every day,” “Read the Bible,” “Pray the Divine Office,” “Go to Adoration,” and “Pray the Rosary.” These habitual practices center the person and give priority to man’s special relationship to God. Quoting from Matthew “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” she states in the preface: “More than that, God promises that if we love Him first, everything else — friends, recognition, adventure — will come our way” — even a Rhodes Scholarship.
These tips, however, go beyond the self-evident and traditional. One of her unexpected recommendations is “Find Someone You Can Lead,” meaning the willingness to teach others who ask questions about the Catholic faith and show a sincere interest in learning:
“Being a mentor grows your heart and gives you a glimpse into what it must be like to be a parent. You invest time and love in people, and what they do with it is up to them.”
Another unconventional recommendation is “Make Friends Who Aren’t Like You.” Griffin sees the benefit of conversations and friendships with others who do not share her faith or convictions like her fellow Rhodes Scholars at Oxford or Harvard undergraduates.
First, unless you listen to opposing views, “you will never understand the best objections to your positions.” Second, it provides an opportunity to grow in charity and deepen one’s faith: “It has forced me to think about what the Trinity is (other than a divine mystery) and to confront how the Church is negatively perceived among secular people of goodwill.”
Griffin offers a tip that especially goes unheeded in academic life and in modern culture: “Rest on Sundays.” She warns of the two dangers that compromise the Commandment about keeping holy the Sabbath— compulsive work and procrastination: “The most studious among us can end up working perpetually if we are not careful.” On the other hand, the procrastinators use Sunday to compensate for all academic work they have neglected in the previous week.
She discovered from her own experience that the time of Sunday for worship and rest protected against the exhaustion and enervation known as “burnout” and revitalized the sources of joy, providing “more restful leisure, more productive work, and more quality time with friends.”
Her tips about the moral life advise uncompromising moral standards despite their countercultural nature. She finds absurd the conventional worldly wisdom about “sowing one’s oats” in the college years as if this time in life is free of responsibilities and divorced from reality or consequences. A Catholic is always a Catholic about every aspect of his or her life. Drunkenness or binge-drinking, experimentation with drugs, pornographic media, and premarital sexuality always are intrinsically disordered and sinful. Christians always govern their lives by the highest ideals of moral excellence, not by the lowest common denominator or the mores of popular culture.
At college or in any environment, Christian living, Griffin argues, always seeks, in St. Paul’s words, the “things that are above.” The teaching of St. Paul always provides the highest model:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious . . . think about these things.”
There are additional tips to cultivate authentic Catholic living in academic environments. The simplest is “Just Be Catholic,” that is, “Don’t be liberal or sedevacantist” by rejecting the authority of all the Popes after Pius XII. She observes that the enemy who sows strife and division does not care whether Catholics stray to the extreme liberal or the extreme conservative positions “as long as you do not remain within the multitudes contained by the Church.”
Appreciating the universality of the Church and its many Eastern rites that include all cultures, races, and nationalities, Griffin never wavers in affirming the Church’s oneness in teaching unchanging moral doctrines that allow for no “evolution” of doctrine to accommodate the fashionable trends of novel ideas. Just being Catholic, then, means respecting the nature of the Church as a rock: “The Church cannot subtract from her teaching but only develop it in greater depth over time.”
How to stay Catholic at a secular university, then, is not a set of platitudes, formulas, or prescriptions but advice from the heart learned from the experience of growing in one’s faith in many small or large ways. The Catholic life is not a minimal set of requirements such as going to Mass on Sundays or to Confession once a year but a variety of activities, disciplines, and habits that nourish the mind, heart, soul, and body.
One tip is to “Go on a Mission Trip” to serve Christ and to “grow the soul,” not for the sake of the résumé.
Another tip is “To Live the Liturgical Year” and “live joyfully in every season, together,” in the bond of Christian charity — a valuable reminder of the state of the world before the Incarnation and the Resurrection. The Church calendar offers another pace and more natural rhythm that enriches the soul more than the routine of academic life or the workaday world.
Yet other tips advise “Read Catholic Literature,” “Attend Conferences,” and “See Catholic Lecturers” in order to always to grow in one’s faith and appreciate its riches as transmitted by the great works of literature and art inspired by Christian faith and by the foremost professors and defenders of the perennial wisdom of the Church’s treasury of knowledge.
Another practical but countercultural recommendation is “Date Only Christians and Be Chaste.” The person one dates with the prospect of marriage “ideally should be Catholic” and “a fully practicing Catholic who inspires you to love Christ more all the time.”

The Great Commandment

Thus there are at least forty or more ways to grow in stature, wisdom, and charity in living an authentic Catholic life. But the first principle always is the great commandment to love God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul. Seeking God’s Kingdom first, as Griffin discovered in her interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, demands unwavering fidelity and impeccable integrity. Asked whether she supported embryonic stem cell to advance the cause of medical science, Griffin had to make an existential decision: to love God first or the Rhodes Scholarship.
Despite full knowledge of the committee’s endorsement of this scientific practice that uses aborted fetuses, “Figuring I would lose the scholarship, I answered that I would support the Church’s teaching.”
Amazingly, she won the scholarship because, in the view of the committee members, they were testing her integrity “and would not have awarded me the scholarship had I answered falsely.”
Her story at Harvard proves, in the words of the preface to the book, “if we love Him first, everything else . . . will come our way” — even a Rhodes Scholarship! That is the best and wisest of the tips that summarizes all the others.

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