Most college students return home several times each year, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Summer break. Do they find a ready welcome back at their home parish?
Here are three homecoming ideas:
1. Get the college students together with the parish youth group. High school students are fascinated by college, and by college students. They are eager to hear all about life on campus. Let's use that to the Lord's advantage. Get your returning college students over to the parish youth group, the Confirmation retreat, the high school Religious Ed classes. Invite them to speak about what their Catholic faith means to them as a college student, how they've struggled to make Sunday Mass a priority and to keep their morals and relationships in line with Christ's commandments. I guarantee that your high school students will be listening attentively.
2. Get the college students over for a home-cooked meal. Better yet, serve the meal at the home of one of your college student's parents. And be sure to get the pastor over for dinner that night as well. After a semester or two of endless feeding at the campus cafeteria trough, it is no surprise that college students return with a newfound appreciation for home cooking. They are eager to socialize with their old high school friends, but they're short on cash and, thus, quite willing to visit a real home with a real kitchen, a real fireplace, a real family.
And the pastor? He will be amazed at how much his young parishioners are eager to see Father again, to discuss their experiences at the Newman Center and in philosophy class. Parents of college students have noted this wonderful transformation for years: When formerly taciturn children come home from their first semester in college, they often surprise their elders with a maturing capacity for thoughtful conversation and even reflective faith sharing.
3. Ask them if anything's been stirring in their hearts regarding a vocation. Granted, most Catholic college students are not thinking about joining the seminary or the convent anytime soon. But many of them are thinking and praying about the big questions of life and faith, now that they are in the big world on their own. Every pastor should meet with every one of his college-age parishioners at least once a year while they are home.
Several years ago, the Knights of Columbus conducted a comprehensive study of newly ordained priests throughout the United States to examine which factors had led to their priestly vocations. Can you guess the #1 factor? The longer a pastor was serving in his parish, the more likely it was that his parish would foster vocations. It makes sense: The future priest knew his pastor through all of the ups and downs of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. When that young man finally began to consider a priestly vocation, the old pastor was still around. A wise and stable pillar. A trusted spiritual counselor. A father.
One final note: When men and women serving in our armed forces return to our parishes, I trust that we welcome them back with honor and gratitude. Likewise, many of our Catholic college students are engaged in spiritual warfare every day on their campuses as they seek to live their faith and share their faith. Let's remember them, and honor them, on the homefront.