Faith and fellowship post pandemic

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Students are anxious and isolated from one another after the pandemic, struggling to get by and complete their degrees, and are not used to young Catholics offering faith and fellowship.
Students are anxious and isolated from one another after the pandemic, struggling to get by and complete their degrees, and are not used to young Catholics offering faith and fellowship.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, university-aged Catholics feel like their faith has helped them keep their lives together, but it’s hitting a brick wall when it comes to their fellow students.

Hudson Leone and Larissa Al Youssef, president and vice-president of the UTS Catholic Society, said that after two years of lockdowns and remote learning it’s harder to engage.

Students are anxious and isolated from one another after the pandemic, struggling to get by and complete their degrees, and are not used to young Catholics offering faith and fellowship.

After becoming President Mr Leone, a 24-year old PhD candidate in quantum computing and a convert to the faith, was excited to share his faith with others.

“I was really looking forward to the opportunity to really discuss with people seriously. But these opportunities just haven’t manifested on campus,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“I was trying to convince a mathematician friend to come to Church with me, or engage me in discussions, and he brushed me off saying, ‘I’m not a religious person.’”

“People are kind of tired. What we’re seeing is lukewarmness in the true sense of the word, people who are antipathetic to all forms of faith.

“They say, ‘just leave me alone. Leave me out of this.’

“I was trying to convince a mathematician friend to come to Church with me, or engage me in discussions, and he brushed me off saying, ‘I’m not a religious person.’

“Well I never thought that I would be the guy to go to Church on Sunday, much less to daily Mass.

“It’s not a matter of personality or temperament — it’s Catholic because it’s universal.”

Ms Al Youssef, a 19-year-old engineering student, told The Catholic Weekly she makes an effort to reach out to her fellow students even though she is sometimes “terrified” to do so.

Eyes fixed on Christ: Hudson Leone and Larissa Al Youssef - president and vice-president of the UTS Catholic Society - see definite trends among their peers. These include increased anxiety and isolation after two years of lockdown and a suspicious attitude to religion. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff
Eyes fixed on Christ: Hudson Leone and Larissa Al Youssef – president and vice-president of the UTS Catholic Society – see definite trends among their peers. These include increased anxiety and isolation after two years of lockdown and a suspicious attitude to religion. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff

She makes small gestures to her classmates, like sitting with lonely students or asking them to have coffee after class.

“These people have never been invited to anything,” she said.

“You find they’re looking for something, but they’re very shy and they’re very embarrassed to express that.”

Ms Al Youssef said her generation was looking to “fill the void” in their hearts with distractions and parties, and that lockdown made the problem more acute.

“Netflix, that was what we were running to … and it didn’t make us satisfied,” she said.

“We came out of lockdown depressed, anxious, not knowing how to communicate anymore.

“Mr Leone and Ms Al Youssef said they became leaders at UTS’s Catholic Society after the previous leadership graduated during the pandemic or were drawn away by other commitments.”

“What I believe is that a lot of our youth is broken and hurt. They come at you excusing themselves, in a way, because of the hurt.

“They don’t know how to turn that to God because they don’t have that in their lives.”

Mr Leone agreed, saying that young men leaving high school were particularly at risk of becoming “straight up nihilists”.

Mr Leone and Ms Al Youssef said they became leaders at UTS’s Catholic Society after the previous leadership graduated during the pandemic or were drawn away by other commitments.

Despite their challenges, the pair remain undeterred in their mission to bring the love of Jesus Christ to UTS.

“My biggest goal in life is to do everything in the glory of God,” said Ms Al Youssef.

Despite their challenges, the pair remain undeterred in their mission to bring the love of Jesus Christ to UTS. Photo: Tama Leaver, Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Despite their challenges, the pair remain undeterred in their mission to bring the love of Jesus Christ to UTS. Photo: Tama Leaver, Flickr/CC BY 2.0

During lunch after Mass at Sydney University Chaplaincy, 22-year-old education Masters’ student Will Henry told The Catholic Weekly that having the John Paul II centre on campus was a great support.

Mr Henry was baptised in February this year after first becoming interested in faith at age 19, and having a Catholic family invite him to join them for Easter and Christmas 2021.

The warmth and structure his new faith has given him means he isn’t shy about being a Catholic on campus.

He invites friendly conversations about faith, but sometimes they become disagreements over what it means to live a good life.

He sees that students who follow contemporary norms around “hookup culture” and politics are often anxious, depressed or angry.

Generation Z Catholics have adopted a more serious approach to their lives as an “organic” response to what they observe around them.

“Yes, we have all this technology, the GDP is so great, but look how ugly the buildings are, how terrible the art is.”

“I feel like I’m very happy and content, very optimistic about my future [by comparison]. That validates it,” he said.

Mr Henry wants to teach in a Catholic school in a regional area to “help form good, moral, healthy young people” and to leave city life behind, which he thinks is ugly, cramped and expensive.

He doesn’t want to spend millions on an apartment in the city when he could buy land in regional NSW and raise a family.

“Yes, we have all this technology, the GDP is so great, but look how ugly the buildings are, how terrible the art is.”

“When I look at society I just think, ‘I don’t want to be a sucker’,” he said.