Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Today, the University of Notre Dame holds its opening of the school year Mass. Participating in this Mass since the year 2000, I have noticed a subtle trend among our student body; namely, that they are increasingly absent from this opening school year liturgy. Yet, their absence from this Mass is by no means unique. Declining Mass attendance among millennials is a persistent concern of campus ministry at Notre Dame (and the Church in general). Christian Smith, in his Young Catholic America notes that 83% of 18-23 year olds attend Mass less than once a week. And one does not need sociological data alone to notice the declining attendance of students at the Eucharist. Last year, my wife overhead two first year students, who both noted that they were looking forward to no longer attending Sunday Mass (though, they were open to weekday Masses where food was served).
Thus, if I were given an opportunity to offer a moment of exhortation to the class of 2019 at Notre Dame, it would relatively simple. Go to Mass. Indeed, I recognize there are many reasons students cease going to Mass. They may be exerting independence from their family, an opportunity to make their own way now that they no longer dwell under the roofs of their parents. They may be bristling against some of the teachings of the Church; and college is an occasion to experiment whether one actually wants to remain Catholic. Attending Mass may simply disappear as a practice within one’s life as the workload of a college education becomes too much. Time for prayer gives way to studying for exams or grabbing a quick bite to eat. Soon habits are formed, which leads one away from the Eucharistic assembly.
Yet, it is precisely in the midst of beginning one’s college career that we most need the Eucharist. We need to be present at the altar on a regular basis so that we can offer to the risen Lord the sorrows and joys that accompany the earliest days of college. We need the familiar ritual of the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of a life in turmoil. We need to practice gratitude for all that we receive each day as a student, all that we are learning.
In the end, the heart of a Catholic education is nothing less than wisdom. The wisdom that we seek is not merely success in life; it is not becoming famous for our business acumen or our research abilities. It is the wisdom of beatitude, of a life oriented toward seeking the God who is love.
Exert your new found independence, then, by eating new foods and switching majors every couple of weeks; not skipping the Eucharist. Bring your questions about the Church to your courses in theology, to your rector or local priest. But let your questions echo inside the Church, in the context of a life of worship. And don’t let study and pursuit of perfection serve as an obstacle to your primary vocation. To become a sacrifice of praise to the living God.
In other words, go to Mass.