Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Roman Catholicism: 'Hail Mary' Is More Than a Football Play

By Joan Raymond and Daniel McGinn
Newsweek

Aug. 29 - Sept. 5, 2005 issue - Marc Sayre looks like a typical college student: baggy jeans, unbuttoned plaid shirt over a grungy tee and a knit black cap. He lives off campus with friends who favor Coldplay, cold beer, pool tournaments—and the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Their fratlike group, called the Knights of the Holy Queen, consists of nearly 40 male students at Franciscan University. They pray together daily and convene once a week to share the long, ritualistic prayer of the rosary, which is more commonly performed by folks their grandmothers' age. "This is what we long for in our faith," says Sayre, 21, referring to a level of devotion that goes far beyond attending Sunday mass. "There was an emptiness before. Now our lives—my life—are full."

For decades, America's 67 million Roman Catholics have had a reputation as a wayward flock. While evangelical Protestants built mega-churches and rose in membership, Catholics migrated toward a less dogmatic form of faith. Some of the transformation has been formal, such as the 1965 Vatican II reforms that ended Latin mass. But much has been informal, as "cafeteria Catholics" have played pick-and-choose, rejecting some church rituals (such as confession) or teachings (on subjects like birth control). But now, as the generation raised under the more orthodox Pope John Paul II comes of age, some young Catholics are searching for a more rigorous form of faith. They're reviving old rituals and hewing to strict doctrine. Franciscan University, with 2,300 students in the old steel town of Steubenville, Ohio, is a haven for these faithful. This is one of the few colleges in America where a "Hail Mary" isn't just a last-minute football play.

To spend time among them is to explore the boundary where normal college life intersects with ultradevout Catholicism. Many of the students here drink, but they generally don't get trashed. They date, but remain fully clothed and often pray as couples. And as befits their age, sometimes they feel torn between the secular and the spiritual. "Sure, there are some nights I'd rather be watching 'Punk'd' than joining the group in prayer," says Audry Raines, 20, a member of the Little Flowers, a sororitylike worship house. "[But] there is beauty in prayer, in contemplation, in doing small things."

Although most of these students were born Catholic, many speak of "converting" to this deeper immersion as teenagers. They'd grown dispirited with routine Sunday masses and wanted a more personal connection with Christ. Some are unapologetically judgmental of the unconverted. "A lot of these kids have a problem with so-called sociological Catholics," says Boston College theologian Stephen Pope. But Franciscan University's president, Father Terence Henry, says conversion is a deeply personal choice, not something by which to measure others. "It's an ongoing experience, a handing over of life more and more to the Lord."

Even under John Paul II's conservative successor, it is a stretch to say that young Catholics like these—whose numbers nationally are impossible to determine—represent the future of the church. Soon they will graduate into a more secular world, but they promise to stay devoted. "God is just more than somebody you visit on Sunday," says Liz Danik, 21. For those who've chosen this stronger flavor of Catholicism, the nourishment comes daily.

With William Lee Adams

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
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