Photo taken at Youth 2000 Summer Festival.
"I have truly come to know God’s love for me, and this has transformed the way I see myself and those around me."
It is a commonly expressed belief that going to university changes you. I was not sure that my university experience would be quite so transformational, because instead of having the typical student experience of moving away from home, I stayed at home in my native city of Sheffield. Even though part of me felt like the University of Sheffield was the right place for me, I also worried that perhaps I was missing out on the best experience of a lifetime. I am now in my third year of my Spanish and German degree, and I am currently living in Switzerland. Whilst I am now seeing that it is true that living independently far away from home does indeed develop you in new ways, if I had to pick one experience that I believe has truly changed my life in the greatest possible way, I would say that it was going to my University Catholic Chaplaincy in Sheffield and becoming a part of the Catholic Society. Through this I have truly come to know God’s love for me, and this has transformed the way I see myself and those around me.
This might come as a surprise if you knew me growing up, because I don’t have a dramatic conversion story. I was raised Catholic, I went to Catholic school, and we always went to Mass on a Sunday as a family. I played my flute in the music group at Mass and I enjoyed being a part of the parish community. I always believed in God, but I don’t think that I ever had a particularly close and real relationship with Him. I would pray because I thought it was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t fully convinced by the power of prayer. I sometimes thought saying that you would pray for something was like a get out clause for when you couldn’t do anything practical, it was a nice gesture but I lacked the faith to believe that it could genuinely change anything. Although Church was overall a positive experience for me, I never realised that a deeper experience of love, peace and joy was waiting for me if I only opened up my heart. However, finding my Catholic society has truly transformed my faith, and I now have a far stronger relationship with God than I had a couple of years ago; I have an increased awareness of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and I truly recognise the Holy Spirit working in my life.
"I never realised that a deeper experience of love, peace and joy was waiting for me if I only opened up my heart."
It’s funny and kind of embarrassing to admit now, but I actually would never have gone to the Sheffield Catholic chaplaincy if my mum hadn’t encouraged me to try it. I remember she kept encouraging me to go, and I didn’t really want to. I was fine to carry going to my parish church on a Sunday and playing in the choir there, but I had no desire to deepen my faith. I didn’t even realise that it was possible for me to. I thought that this strange-sounding Catholic group would be really weird, but I decided that I would try it anyway. I was surprised that it was not at all as I had expected. My experience of being a part of Sheffield Catholic Society is that it is like being part of a big family. We would pray together, have deep discussions, eat together, go to the pub, and generally just have a great time as we grew in faith together. It is a really lovely group and whoever you are and whatever your background is if you are made to feel welcome.
I think that meeting all these Catholics who were around my age was actually the first step that caused me to come to think more seriously about my own faith. I don’t think I’d ever met young people who were so committed to their faith before. Of course faith is a personal experience, but I also believe that belonging to a strong faith community is invaluable. I believe that God works through people, and the friends I made at the chaplaincy inspired me as I saw God working through them, and that in turn encouraged me to open myself up more to God.
At the chaplaincy I encountered new forms of worship that I had previously had little experience of. In second year I went to weekly Eucharistic adoration; I will admit that I most likely would never have independently decided to start going weekly, but I got asked if I could be on the rota and I had no real reason to say no. After a few weeks though, I actually started to look forward to that half-hour slot because, perhaps for the first time in my life, I started truly trying to listen to God’s voice, rather than just talking to Him without expecting a response. We also had praise and worship evenings, and I really grew to love that free style of worship too. I would always leave the chapel feeling a great sense of God’s love.
"One thing that I have experienced through praying in Eucharistic adoration is God repeatedly revealing to me that I am enough."
I think that I had always believed on some level that God loved me, but only in the general sense that He loved us all. I didn’t fully appreciate that He actually loved me personally and had created me with intention and there was a reason that I had been created with my own unique personality. I struggled a lot with self-esteem as a teenager, and I was incredibly shy and insecure throughout most of my time at secondary school. I always used to worry that people were judging me, and I often felt like life was a competition, one in which I could never be the “best”: I could never be successful enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough, not popular enough, not interesting enough. I would feel as though I fell short of whatever imaginary standards I had imposed upon myself. One thing that I have experienced through praying in Eucharistic adoration is God repeatedly revealing to me that I am enough. I do not need to worry about how I measure up to the fleeting standards of this world, because I am wonderfully and fearfully made, and loved by the creator of the universe! I am not trying to say that I believe myself to be perfect, I am definitely a work in progress and as much in need of Jesus as ever, but I have come to the realisation that His is the only approval I should strive for. I should not see life as a competition, or worry that other people seem to have some gift that I don’t, for we were all created to have different gifts and strengths as part of God’s plan. We do have to cooperate with God in trying to reach the potential He wants for us, but we should trust that God is indeed on our side, and that He created us with all the basic ingredients that we need to become the saints He wants us all to be – we just have to keep placing God first and following His wonderful recipe for our lives.
This blog was a struggle for me to write, because there is so much more I could have shared, there have been so many significant moments of faith and friendship that I have experienced as a result of finding the Catholic Society that it was a challenge to know what to include! However, I hope I have managed to convey the message that I felt called to share. I feel as though I have had a very ordinary life, I had an ordinary Catholic upbringing, I struggled with insecurity, I had not fully embraced for myself my identity as a child of God. I was not initially drawn towards the Catholic society and I probably would never have gone if I had not been encouraged to, but I went anyway, and the blessings I have received as a result have been greater than I could have imagined. My entire faith journey is really just me turning up to the right place at the right time, being surrounded by the right people who encouraged me, and God reaching me through it all. My encouragement to anyone out there who might be reading this and thinking, “that all sounds great, but I’m still not sure that this is for me” is that you have nothing to lose from just going along to your university Catholic chaplaincy just to see what it is like (as I once did) and you have so much to gain.