Growing up, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My mother is a practising Catholic, and my father is a lapsed Anglican who usually only goes to church if there's a family wedding, funeral, or carol service. In our youth, my twin brother and I went through the sacraments of Baptism, Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation though our parish, but these seemed to be more cultural than religious (I'll also concede that, as a baby, I can’t remember my Baptism...).
Sixth form was a tough period in my life. To this day I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the trigger was, but I became increasingly depressed. What little faith I had was smothered by stress and pessimism. I'd intended to study History and Politics at university, but for some reason I made the rather late change to study History and Theology instead. In her great wisdom, my mum suggested looking for the Catholic Society at whichever university I ended up at, telling me how much the Catholic students and chaplain had meant to her when she had studied at Warwick.
Open days are a scramble for everyone. Kids and parents alike are trying to work out what the course syllabus is like, what the accommodation is like and whether the university has the right feel. On top of all of that, my mum and I had resolved to find the chaplaincy of every university we visited, and look for a CathSoc.
I ended up going to the University of Birmingham. I hadn't found out anything about UoB's CathSoc prior to arriving there to begin my course, but I made sure to keep an eye out. I found a Facebook group that appeared to be them, but I was still sceptical because I knew how many groups of this kind are in fact dormant. I was well enough to make it to the Societies Fair, and to my relief, the CathSoc had a stall there.
My story is a happy one, in that I found what I was looking for. I went to the CathSoc curry that week and met loads of other freshers and students. As with all societies you try out in first year, you're constantly thinking about whether you'll fit in there, and whether it's worth going to. After all, I could've decided to just attend any Catholic church in the surrounding neighbourhoods. In my case, this CathSoc proved to be an active, welcoming and diverse group. Going to mass and socials with them soon became my favourite part of the university experience. Not only did I make dear friends there, but I also made steps back to God.
A regular part of the society’s week was Adoration. This was an almost entirely alien concept to me. I had a rough idea of what the Eucharist meant for Catholics, is believed to become the body of Jesus at the moment of consecration, but I didn't know the Eucharist outside of Mass. In a year where not everything went to plan (in fact, very little of my studies did), having an hour of prayer, with a specific focus to it, was invaluable. Some people swear by meditation, but for me, Adoration is so much more. There’s a focus to Adoration in the Eucharist, a purpose for taking time away from the mundane parts of life.
As an eighteen-year-old, regular Confession was alien to me too. I’d only been twice in my life, but in the February of my first year, slouching at the back of the Cathedral during a student service, a friend suggested I go. Now in my third year of university, I probably go to confession about once a month. There are few things more daunting than going to Confession for the first time in years, but I'm so grateful that I was given the encouragement to go.
So what does this all mean? Call me dramatic, but the CathSoc I found made a distinct positive change to my life. I don't think I could've coped in university without it. I believe strongly that all students, regardless of circumstance, should have an easy way to find Catholic student communities in their vicinity. If I didn't have Facebook, and if I wasn't well enough to attend Societies Fair, I might never have got involved with Birmingham's CathSoc. I know from friends and schoolmates who went to other universities how difficult it can be to find a community at university, and how difficult it can be to retain the faith that at university.
No two experiences of university life are the same, but I know from personal experience how much the Catholic student communities and societies in Britain have to offer students. For some, it’s the environment where great friendships are made, for others it adds consistency to an otherwise overwhelming student life. Together, we can help rekindle faith, and perhaps even guide some people towards it for the very first time.