Deciding on the “perfect” college major can be a complicated and bewildering experience in anyone’s first years of college. In my own experience, however, choosing to be a Catholic Studies major was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. When I arrived at St. Thomas as a prospective transfer student, I met with Dr. Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies. He explained the program, offered detailed summaries of each semester’s classes, and mentioned the Rome study-abroad opportunity. During that hour in his office, I began to see how my past experiences were leading up to that point, inviting me to make a life-altering decision. Within a week of talking with Dr. Briel and meeting with an admissions counselor, I knew I wanted to transfer to St. Thomas and major in Catholic Studies.
My decision goes back to a day when a friend invited me to come to her Catholic youth group in West St. Paul. That evening, I saw young people so in love with God that I was inspired to open my life up and give him everything. Months later, after Eucharistic adoration at a Steubenville Youth Conference, I decided to convert from my multi-Christian faith background to Catholicism.
Enlivened with new and ever-growing faith, I attended Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. Academically and socially I did well there, and I continued to be faithful to daily prayer and daily Mass, seeking the Lord wherever he could be found. But after two years there, I began to question everything. So little seemed to make sense anymore. Certainly, it’s natural to experience doubts and question one’s faith, but I had utterly torn my faith to pieces. I was dissatisfied with my religious studies classes because they seemed to intellectualize God to the point of carefully dissecting him as if under a microscope. Few students seemed to take an active interest in practicing their faith, and, overall, I knew that something was missing, but I couldn’t identify what exactly I was looking for.
Shortly after transferring to St. Thomas, I entered into the hardest time of my life. In pain and confusion, I looked to God for help. I thought to myself, “I am a Catholic studies major, and even though I feel closer to finding truth and answers, a part of me still feels like something is missing.”
Apart from the challenges in my personal life during my first semester at St. Thomas, I found a deep appreciation for my studies. I studied the works of church fathers, soaked up the wisdom of theologians and was inspired by Catholic authors and saints such as Edith Stein, a 20th century scholar, mystic and Carmelite nun who was killed in the Holocaust for her former Jewish heritage and beliefs. My studies brought life to me in ways that all of my other studies at Holy Cross could not do. I think one reason for my passion for my studies was due to the fact that my teachers and classmates live their faith vibrantly. They exude a desire to let Christ transform all parts of their lives, and I must admit that it’s quite contagious.
During my two years at St. Thomas, I have learned a tremendous amount, especially during a semester in Rome, living, studying, exploring and growing with 26 other students. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Throughout my time in Rome, the question, “What is my vocation?” popped up often. It was not met with textbook answers but with real-life encounters with religious and married people. Dr. Bacciarlini, an accomplished architect who taught our art and architecture course, graciously invited our class to meet his family at their home — a memorable opportunity to see Catholic married life firsthand. Bacciarlini, his wife and their six children welcomed us wholeheartedly, and soon enough we began hearing their family stories. Every Sunday, all eight of them gather to share how the Lord has blessed them. After this time of sharing, they each pick an instrument and play music together. What made a lasting impression on me that day was witnessing the admiration, love and respect each parent and child shared for one another. They stood out as a living testimony of the joys of family life in an Italian culture with one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
Holy Week, usually a compelling and memorable time of year, was even more so for me because my older sister came to visit. Though she was not practicing her Catholic faith, it was a touching experience for us both, to open ourselves up to the love of God and to be in Rome for the most celebrated holy day of the year. We felt truly grateful on Easter Sunday when we heard the pope say Mass in St. Peter’s Square. The Lord and his mother were infinitely good to us, drawing us together as sisters like never before.
Another treasure of Rome can be summed up in three words: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante set my intellectual wheels spinning. Dr. Mary Reichardt, our St. Thomas Catholic studies professor, helped us navigate through this masterpiece, peeling back rich layers of history, theology and spiritual wisdom that revealed exciting clues into Dante’s personal life. I was enthralled by Virgil and Dante’s descent through hell, Dante’s spiritual awakening in purgatory and his beatific vision in heaven.
The stories from Italy are inexhaustible, but these few memories give a sense of the learning, growth and overwhelming blessing of God that I experienced at the heart of the Church.
After receiving so much in Rome, I wanted to give back in some way. Right before my senior year, opportunity fell at my doorstep. I was asked to lead a faith-based social justice group called Sowers of Justice. This year has taught me how to take the pulse of student interest, offer students new ways of re-examining beliefs about political responsibility and the role of faith and reason regarding war and injustice, and teach others how to support the Third World through our purchasing power. This ministry has deepened my appreciation for Catholic studies, because I see more clearly the connections between faith and action.
The Catholic Studies program has touched my life personally and academically. It reveals truths about our human existence in relation to God. These truths teach us how to be more like Christ in the world, and they call us to strive for the betterment of self and other. My longing for answers has not completely gone away, but I know that my answer lies in my love, who is Christ. I am grateful to the Lord and all those at St. Thomas for the gift of this wonderful place.