First, the weekend before last I was in attendance at the 5th annual Diocese of Charlotte Eucharistic Congress. While there I heard Imaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwandan genocide, speak on Our Lady of Kibeho (the only approved apparition on the African continent).
Her talk was very inspirational, peppered with many personal anecdotes. Imaculee has been many times in her life to Kibeho to be in the presence of such grace and to hear the visionaries. Once, when she was a student, she traveled to Kibeho when she should have been studying for a test the next morning. Imagine her surprise when one of the visionaries related a message to the gathered crowd from Mary, to the effect of, "I know many of you left work or school today without permission. But because you came to me, your Mother, I will take care of you."
Imaculee returned home late that night, intent on studying for her test. Exhausted, though, she went to sleep instead. The next morning, she only had one hour to study before class. Knowing there was no way she could read the 350 page text in that time, she instead opened to a random part of the book and read a 10 page section.
To her amazement, every question on her test came from those 10 pages she had read. And while she did not ace it, she passed the test. In fact, she related, she was one of only two students in the class to receive a passing grade. Our Lady had taken care of her.
I heard Imaculee talk about Our Lady of Kibeho on Saturday. So her account was still fresh in my mind the next Sunday morning at Mass, listening to a homily about the realities of Hell. The Gospel for the day was from the ninth chapter of Mark, where Jesus instructs us, quite bluntly, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. it is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna... If your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna..."
Jesus is telling us that Hell is real, and it is a possibility that we may go there, if we do not repent, amend our ways, and follow the path He has set towards eternal life.
Father's homily pointed out the fact that God does not send anyone to hell -- we choose to go there, by rejecting Him. God has made His choice for us, revealed in Jesus Christ. God chooses life for us -- eternal life, in perfect and absolute happiness with Him. God's choice is made. We must also choose. Do we choose the life God is offering us? Or do we reject it? Jesus, in the Gospel reading, is warning us of the consequences of that rejection.
Father pointed out that the primary task of this life is to move towards God, to accept God, to live in love with Him, to be sanctified through Him, so that when we die we may live eternally with Him. I repeat, this is our primary purpose. All those other things that we seek after and hope to achieve might be good, as well. We need to work at our jobs, we need to study in school, we need to build friendships and have hobbies and all those things. These things are good and important. But none of those pursuits are our primary aims in life. Growing closer to God is.
This brings me to the third and final event that I want to tie into all of this. Last spring, I held a retreat for some students, the theme of which was "True Repentance." Repentance, I stressed to them, means reorientation. It means turning towards Christ, and away from whatever it is that is leading you away from Him. It it not necessary that repentance be a complete 180 degree about-face (though if you are living a life diametrically opposed to Christ, an about face is surely called for). But repentance can mean a smaller shift. If you are living your life aimed at Christ, and get off by even just a few degrees, pursuing that path will take you father and father off course the longer you maintain it. You need to reorient yourself back to Christ. You need to repent.
So I began the day by asking the students to give me examples of elements of their college life that serve as distractions from Christ; things they need to repent of. I was expecting the usual; sex, drugs and rock and roll. What nearly every student said, without exception, greatly surprised me. It was academic pressure. They get so much pressure from professors, advisors, and directors to do well that it is overwhelming. The assignments, the tests, the papers and exams all add up to a big pile of stress. Students are taking multiple classes, in effect serving multiple masters, each demanding 100% of their time.
And where is there time for Jesus?
All this adds up to a real need for us all -- and college students especially -- to examine our priorities. Are we really living as if heaven is our primary goal? I have no doubt that, if asked, most all Christians would agree that it is. The question is whether this is reflected in our lives.
I can tell you, without looking at a calendar, when mid-terms and exams are coming, because Mass attendance on campus goes down. People are not skipping Mass to go party or hang out with friends. They are staying home to study, or going to the library. More and more I hear this. "I can't come to Mass because I have a paper due." Or, "I'd like to come to the program, but I need to go do homework."
Now, studying is a good thing. And I suppose skipping Mass to study is preferable to skipping Mass to take drugs in a dark alley. But while studying is a good, and doing homework is a good, attending Mass is also a good. In fact, it's an obligation for us Catholics. And there is a reason for it.
We need to hear the Word of God proclaimed. We need to be in His presence. We need to offer him our praise and worship. And we need to receive Him in the Eucharist, the "source and summit of our faith," according to the Second Vatican Council, and "the bread of life" according to Jesus Christ Himself! Jesus said, "If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you."
One hour a week. That's all the Church is asking. Why? Because it is important. Because our main goal in this life is to be worthy of heaven so that when we die we may live forever with our Creator, enjoying the perfect bliss for which He has made us. That's why. Heaven is our main project.
Studying and academic achievement should be priorities for all college students -- important priorities. You are at university to learn, after all. But why? The purpose of education is simple and straightforward -- to come to understand the truth. But the thing we often forget is that god, the author of all truth, wants you to know Him personally, as well. We have an obligation to make God a priority in our lives.
Make academic excellence a priority. But make God a higher priority. You may find, like Imacluee, that making time for God and putting your faith first puts all those other concerns in perspective. The graces you will gain from putting your faith first will make all those other challenges easier to overcome.
When asked to attend a study group on Sunday, you should say, "No, I'm a Catholic. I need to go to Mass. It is not an option." You can find another time to study, to write your paper, or what have you. For that one hour each week (at minimum!) you belong in the chapel, giving adoration to God. It's every week. You know it's coming. Plan around it. Make it a priority in your college life to put your faith first.
That is, after all, our primary responsibility, our primary endeavor, and, indeed, the reason God made us. Eternal and perfect happiness. We all want it. Putting God first is how we will achieve it.