unsolicited advice: maintaining a “Catholic lifestyle” while abroad

This advice was kind of solicited. One of my dear friends who faithfully reads this blog asked me, on behalf of a friend of his, for my thoughts on maintaining a Catholic lifestyle abroad, where one might not have a good community or many friends with similar beliefs and values. (Both he and I have studied abroad before and knew exactly what she was talking about!) This is something I’ve thought about since my first experience abroad 3 years ago, and I was excited to write about it. 

One note: I found as I answered this question that I was speaking specifically to a study abroad experience in Europe, because that’s what I know. If anyone out there has thoughts about experiences in Asia, Africa, or South America, please do let us know!

Studying abroad is a transformative experience, and leaving home to study in another country brings with it many changes: a different city, likely a different language and culture, new friends, a new school, a new living environment… And with all these changes, one aspect of life that can get thrown into disarray is the spiritual. For many of us, our Catholic identity is linked to a particular community, a particular church, or a particular routine, and when those things change, our spiritual growth can suffer if we aren’t proactive. This is one of those times when we, as young Catholics, have to really own our faith.

Being a committed Catholic is not an accident of time or place, and if our faith is to be dynamic and real, it can’t be lived simply through routine or habit. Shaking things up by moving abroad is a real opportunity to be intentional about practicing your faith. I came up with a few lists of concrete actions that young Catholics can take to enrich and nourish their Catholic faith. The lists address two main issues that a young Catholic may encounter while abroad.

Issue One: Pressure to conform to the “study abroad” lifestyle of drunkenness, sex, and general debauchery. 

Many, many, many international students (American or otherwise) use their semester or year abroad as an opportunity to party as much as possible. While I am a huge fun of merriment and alcohol, a lot of the shenanigans that exchange students get up to while abroad don’t exactly conform to our Catholic morality because they lack the virtues of prudence and, most of all, temperance.

If your biggest problem as a Catholic exchange student is the pressure from others to engage in casual sex, excessive drinking, or drug use, I suggest one of 2 basic courses of action, each one challenging in a unique way:

1. If you are hanging out with people who are making you feel compelled to do things you know are wrong, find new friends.

2. Set standards for your own behavior, and challenge yourself to maintain them. I suggest setting a drink limit (or a cost limit!) for a night out, as well as staying away from casual sex and any drug use. Pray for the self-assuredness to be seen as the “strange” one, because you will be, especially if you have been going along with the party scene until now. However, if you’re confident enough in your own morals and decisions, hopefully others will respect them. (If not, see #1.) Be prepared to be appropriately self-deprecating or convicted depending on the situation and your personality. My go-to excuse when avoiding excessive drinking (I’ll admit I used it more when I was under 21) is my “all-encompassing vow of moderation in life.” I’ll have a few drinks and hang around, but that’s it, and I make sure people know it, maybe lightly making fun of myself for it but still standing my ground. This approach is challenging and, if you’re prone to peer pressure, risky.

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it's possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad ;)

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it’s possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad 😉

Issue Two: The struggle to find sources of spiritual growth in a new and maybe less nurturing environment. 

I think this issue may be more in the spirit of the question.

Especially if you are coming from a lively and challenging university ministry at home, it will be a challenge to maintain the same level of “involvement” abroad. Everything about your life is new, and if your spiritual growth gets lost in the shuffle, you may find that this begins to affect your life in other ways, as well. There are two facets to this problem, and I want to discuss both of them, starting with the most important one.

First and foremost, this is a test of your personal relationship with Christ and your discipline in your faith. Don’t be tempted to blame your spiritual failings on anyone but yourself. If it’s important to you, and it seems like it is if you’re wondering about this topic in the first place, take it seriously. As with most spiritual challenges, living abroad is also a huge OPPORTUNITY to grow in your faith. I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve done during my time abroad that have helped me.

1. Spiritual reading. Studying abroad, you will probably have way more “free time” than you do during a normal semester. For me, this meant more time to read, a pleasure I don’t normally get to enjoy while I’m in school. Spiritual reading in particular can actually be a form of prayer. It gives you important things to think about, pray about, and evaluate; you have the time, and you might make some discoveries! Some suggestions for reading that will challenge and nourish you spiritually: 

  • Scripture
  • The lives of the saints: St. Augustine’s Confessions, Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux, The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena
  • Daily reflections of some sort. I’m subscribed to Fr. Robert Barron’s Lenten Reflections and they get sent right to my inbox!
  • Catholic philosophy: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis (Catholic-ish), Jacques Phillippe
  • Catholic blogs: Bad Catholic, Conversion Diaries, and Carrots for Michaelmas are 3 of my favorites. (This recent post from the author of Carrots is fantastic.)
  • And one random suggestion that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories: A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

2. Daily prayer. I will be the first to admit that I fail at this more often than not, whether I’m at home or abroad. However, during Advent I followed this Spiritual Boot Camp (my competitive nature helped me complete it even without any accountability partners, which I normally need). During Lent I am reading two of the Gospels (Mark and Luke, if you’re curious) and finishing the other two during Easter. I have had aspirations of reading a Psalm per day… I’ll find the discipline one of these days! Find a routine that works… maybe 10 minutes at the beginning or end of each day helps you to center your day around God? For short bursts of regular prayer, pick a saint whose feast day is coming up and say their novena. (I use this e-mail service for novenas and love it.) As Catholics we are blessed with so many different types of prayer, so I encourage you to find your favorites and use them!

3. Regular mass attendance. Find a beautiful church to attend Mass at on Sundays (at least!). In Europe, it is much easier to find a truly beautiful church than it is in the US. Let this inspire you to go to mass regularly, even if you go alone. I have encountered some… creative?… liturgy, which seems to be a trade-off with the beautiful churches. If this is going to bother you, I suggest checking out your city’s cathedral for your best bet at a traditional and beautiful service.

3a. Learn the Mass responses in the local language. This will help you immensely to participate in the Mass, even if you don’t always understand the readings or the homily.

3b. Look up and read the day’s readings beforehand so you can comprehend them better during Mass.

4. Other spiritual devotions. Once you’ve found a church or several that you enjoy, see what else they offer (Adoration, weekly Rosary during May or October, etc) and go to those if they interest you. You will likely be one of the only young people there, but that shouldn’t matter if the goal is to fortify your relationship and dialogue with God.

5. Faith-based travel. Go to Rome and pray a rosary in each Papal basilica, or something! (Or get a ticket to a Papal audience!!) Visit a Marian apparition site! In any given city, visit (and pray in) churches that you pass while sightseeing. Experiencing a new and deeply spiritual place, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of traveling, can be good inspiration if you’re in a dry season.

Procession after mass at St. Paul's Basilica, my favorite of the churches we saw

Procession after Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome, April 2011

A second concern: finding community to encourage you on your journey. 

Ah, the hardest part. You’ve probably already experienced the wonderful challenge of making friends abroad, and this just adds a whole new dimension! Some thoughts:

1. Pray that God will send you the community you need. This sounds like a super holy roller answer, but trust in God’s providence is important in this regard. He will give you what you need, but not always what you want or what you’re used to. His answer might surprise you!

2. Find out if a Catholic community for university students exists at your school or in your city. In Germany, this will either be called the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (in the west) or the Katholische Studentengemeinde (in the east). I’m not sure about other countries, but something like this probably exists. Go to their meetings, prayer services, masses, dinners, game nights, or whatever it is they offer. In my personal experience (and I in no way speak for everyone or even anyone besides myself), Catholic communities abroad have been wonderful places to meet friendly people, both international and “native”. They offer different activities that are great for getting integrated into everyday life abroad. But they haven’t always been the source of spiritual growth or theological learning that I’ve found in youth groups and student centers in the US. However, if you are working on your own prayer life and spiritual discipline, as discussed above, this doesn’t have to be a huge deal… Maybe you can make a positive change there, or you can at least learn more about the state of the young church in another country!

3. I may be biased because I’m a Schoenstatter (member of the universal Schoenstatt movement), but if you are lucky enough to be in a city with a Schoenstatt shrine or some other Catholic pilgrimage site or spiritual group, check it out. Maybe you’ll meet some nice people.

4. Embrace simple “evangelization.” Don’t be shy mentioning your faith or church when talking to others. This can be hard in Europe because far fewer people are religious than in America, so you might get some funny looks. (Then again, followers of Christ have suffered worse!) I’m not suggesting standing on street corners and telling people about Jesus… It’s as simple as answering honestly when someone asks where you’re going as you’re headed to Mass. When I met my friend Felicitas, she asked how I had tried meeting friends in Dresden. Despite my instinct to downplay the whole religious thing, I said, “Well, I’m Catholic, so I’ve gone by the Catholic center a few times and met some people.” I fully expected her to say “Hmm, well, that’s not really my thing.” but instead, I was met with  “Wow! I’m Catholic, too! Can I come with you sometime?” Now, we attend KSG functions, Mass, and adoration together and it’s a huge blessing!

5. Especially if none of the above have worked, but even if they have: Stay in touch with a friend from home who can be your accountability partner if you’re worried about lapsing in a particular area. Check up on each other: have you been going to Mass? Reading Scripture? Maybe you can agree to pray a novena together or make a “Mass date” for a certain day of the week, since the Eucharist unites the body of Christ around the world every time it’s celebrated!

6. If you are feeling lonely or abandoned because none of your efforts to find community have worked the way you had imagined, Christ is waiting to remind you that He is your truest friend, companion, and confidant. When you are discouraged, He is there to bolster your confidence. When you need someone to listen to your cares, thoughts, and worries, He will. Community is wonderful and the Church is a beautiful gift from God, but no human community can replace your relationship with your Heavenly Father. This is hard to grasp sometimes, especially when you are seeking human companionship and affirmation, which is natural. But the fact that Christ doesn’t stray from your side can be immensely comforting. The companionship you find in Him when all else fails will be the key to your spiritual growth now and for the rest of your life.

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

Did I miss something? If you have thoughts, feel free to comment below… and please, if you think someone you know could benefit from this advice, share it with them!