College is a time of discovery and change. Through classes and student organizations, students learn more about the world, themselves and, ultimately, pick and choose the parts they carry through their lives.
According to the University of Miami 2016-2017 Fact Book, around 2,000 of the 10,800 undergraduate students at UM identify as part of a particular religion. Of those 2,000 students, 41 percent identify as Catholic.
Senior Christina Gutierrez said she knows the importance of her Catholic faith well and recalled the story of her transformation with tears of joy in her eyes.
“I like to call it a homecoming story,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, a business management major, said she is a “cradle Catholic,” someone born and raised in the faith. But her faith was tested when her parents separated and she and her mother struggled with finances.
She said she remembers being confused and feeling lost. By the time she arrived at the University of Miami, she had turned away from the Catholic Church.
“Everything was about trying to find satisfaction and trying to find a home,” Gutierrez said. “And when all else failed, I just drank.”
After breaking up with her boyfriend, wrestling with health problems and fighting to raise her grades, she hit her “rock-bottom” in November 2016.
Her lowest point led her back to the Church and on a mission trip to Haiti. Gutierrez said she recalls God speaking to her on the trip and she resolved to recommit her life to God, which included becoming vice president of the Catholic Campus Ministry.
“It’s crazy that it was only a year ago,” she said. “A year ago I was getting ready for the worst semester of my life.”
Since recommitting to her faith, Gutierrez said she has more joy and freedom in her life.
“It’s not just going to church on Sunday,” she said. “It becomes a part of everything you do when you fall in love with God. You see him everywhere and in everything.”
Father Phillip Tran, UM’s first full-time Catholic priest, said about 500 students attend services on the weekends. However, he said these numbers should be much higher given the percentage of the university’s population that identifies as Catholic.
Tran said one of the biggest hurdles for anyone, specifically college students, is the search for meaning. He said 80 percent of people who were raised in church stop attending by age 23, but he believes spiritual health is central to finding purpose.
According to the UM 2016-2017 Fact Book, the number of students who identify as Catholic has dropped 51 percent from 2012 to 2016.
“If people could just see God differently or the Catholic Church a little bit differently,” Tran said. “It can be really fun in a much deeper way than getting wasted and waking up with a huge migraine.”
Junior Adam Wahl can be found sitting in mass every Sunday. He is the current president of Catholic Campus Ministry, but there was a time when he questioned God’s existence.
“When someone would say, ‘What is your religion?’ I would say, ‘I am Catholic but not practicing,’” Wahl said.
Wahl said he grew up in a family that identified as Catholic but they weren’t really faithful.
As a neuroscience major, Wahl was also consumed by the desire for perfection in his work. He said he remembers aligning his identity with his GPA.
However, he found himself changed after going to a Catholic retreat.
On the trip, he was told he was a beloved son of God, and it stuck with him – he had never considered himself loved by God that way. He said he discovered meaning in life and saw the beauty of God in the world around him.
While he still works to get the best grades he can, his faith is number one. Wahl said he’ll still fight for his grades but knows that no matter what happens, everything will be okay.
“As much as He [God] wants me to be the best I can be, He does not want me to be envious, competitive or think I need all these things to feel fulfilled,” Wahl said. “I just need love. I never thought coming here my faith would be changed in such a big way, but it was – and the school’s not even a Catholic school.”
Both Wahl and Gutierrez are considering careers in Catholic ministry after graduation.