Colleen Carroll Campbell, journalist and television host of EWTN’s “Faith & Culture,” spoke with The Cardinal Newman Society’s Matt Archbold about her new book My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, which she said she hopes acts as “a gateway drug” for readers to the saints.
The book also provides a window into one Catholic student’s experience at a Catholic university, where the environment was typical of many Catholic colleges today. How Campbell learned from that experience and found the example of the saints (hint: not in theology class) will be of interest to Campus Notes readers.
Matt Archbold: This book literally begins with you on a ledge. It’s unclear to you at that moment where your life is going. You were lost in college. Tell us a little about your experience in college and how you drifted away from your faith. And how reading about the saints brought you back to the faith.
Colleen Carroll Campbell: My college years were filled with a lot of striving – for success, for pleasure, for popularity. On the outside, everything looked great. I was embracing the party lifestyle with gusto while still excelling in school and in my budding journalism career. I even managed to get to Mass each Sunday and toe the line on what I considered the really big rules of my Catholic faith.
But as I recount in the opening scene of My Sisters the Saints – in which I’m perched on the windowsill of my college apartment, surveying the detritus of the campus party scene and battling both a hangover and a nagging sense of inner emptiness – all my superficial striving had led me to a spiritual dead end. I felt bored, restless and lost. And I had a sneaking suspicion that my dissatisfaction was connected to the casual, compartmentalized way I had been practicing my Catholic faith since leaving home for college. That realization launched the 15-year spiritual search that I chronicle in My Sisters the Saints.
In that search, it was the women saints who served as my models and guides. I had not expected that to happen. Like many Catholics, I initially thought the saints were too old-fashioned and goody-two-shoes to speak to my contemporary concerns. But beginning with a biography of St. Teresa of Avila that my father gave me during Christmas break of my senior year in college, the stories of the great women saints proved me wrong. Their lives and writings spoke to my deepest longings, helped me navigate my toughest trials and led me to rethink nearly everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a liberated woman.
MA: You referred to an anti-dating ethos in college. In my research in stories for The Cardinal Newman Society I see this quite often. Dating has been replaced with the hookup culture. What do you think Catholic colleges can do to guide students through that minefield?
CCC: Well, they can start by acknowledging the hook-up culture as a problem worth addressing – a problem to which Catholic teaching on the human person and human sexuality can speak in powerful ways. At too many Catholic colleges, the administrators take such a laissez-faire attitude toward the campus social scene that there is almost nothing distinctively Catholic about the campus environment, aside from the availability of the sacraments for that minority of students that still recognizes the importance of regularly receiving them. Freshman are told where to find the campus health center, reminded not to sexually assault one another or practice unsafe sex and otherwise given no guidance on how to conduct themselves in an environment where binge drinking and drunken couplings are the norm. In their haste to prove how non-judgmental they can be in their attitudes and policies, administrators often squander the opportunity to guide students toward more life-giving extracurricular pursuits and to help them see Catholic teachings as an avenue toward greater freedom and fulfillment. They fail to take students seriously as moral agents and spiritual seekers. And as a result, they produce graduates who do not practice their faith or even understand the faith they are rejecting.
In terms of solutions, the best Catholic college administrators seem to focus not only on beefing up theology classes or campus ministry programs but on creating a campus culture that encourages virtue. Some of this involves setting limits: no pornography on campus computers, for instance, or no overnight visitation from students of the opposite sex. More important are the positive initiatives: Social programming that offers students an entertaining alternative to binge drinking and ample opportunities to go on “real” dates; a vibrant arts and culture scene that reflects the Catholic emphasis on the dignity of men and women and their complementarity; and an administration and faculty that encourage students to begin preparing now for their vocations – to spend their college years becoming the kind of husbands and wives (or priests and religious) that they someday hope to be.
MA: Reading about saints may have saved your soul. Is that one of the reasons you wrote your book “My Sisters the Saints?” Do you think we teach young people enough about saints? I know that when I was younger, stories moved me more than reading the Catechism.
CCC: My fondest hope for My Sisters the Saints is that it will serve as a sort of ‘gateway drug’ to get readers hooked on the saints. One reason I wrote this book as a memoir – interweaving the story of my own spiritual journey with the stories of six women saints who guided me on my way – is because it’s often difficult for contemporary readers to relate to the saints, at least at first.
Sometimes it’s a matter of ignorance: I think we certainly need to do more to introduce young people to the saints. Often, though, it’s a matter of internal resistance, even cynicism. We tend to think the great saints never struggled, never doubted, never encountered the questions and temptations we face today. I know I thought that at first. But in navigating the trials chronicled in this book – everything from difficult work-life decisions to my father’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease and my own battle with infertility – I found myself surprised, again and again, at how powerfully the stories and struggles of the saints could shed light on my own.
In connecting with my contemporary story, I hope that readers otherwise resistant to reading about saints from decades or centuries past will make the life-changing discovery that I did: that the communion of saints is a living and effective reality in the life of every believer. Each of us has a network of powerful friends in heaven. We need only remember to call upon them, to pay attention as they point us toward Jesus, point us toward home.
Click here to purchase Colleen’s great new book My Sisters The Saints: A Spiritual Memoir.
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