At college, ‘authentic religious life’ not always easy

At college, ‘authentic religious life’ not always easy

Like so many other college seniors, Kelsey Conroy, 21, used her spring break to travel.

Rather than journeying to a beach locale, Conroy attended a “Come and See” retreat with the Sisters of Life, a religious community in New York City. Kelsey was one of the few dozen young women from around the country, who are discovering a call to religious life. The Sisters of Life members take the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and a fourth vow: to protect and enhance all human life. The fourth vow is illustrated though a mission of assisting pregnant women in need, as well as an emphasis on prayer. Conroy and the other young women spent the weekend being shown the Sisters’ daily routine.

“The idea of the retreat is really to introduce young women to the prospect of religious life, particularly the Sisters of Life,” Conroy said.

A Falmouth native, the Colby senior is majoring in English with a minor in education. The second of three children, she was raised Catholic, but involvement was limited to attending Sunday Mass with her family.

“My understanding of my faith – and, subsequently, my engagement with it – came much later,” Conroy said.

Conroy’s aunt and godmother, Susan Conroy, traveled to Calcutta while studying at Dartmouth College. Susan served alongside Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, and a burgeoning friendship through correspondence ensued. Susan wrote a book, “Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity,” and travels around the country, speaking about her experience in India.

Conroy grew up hearing her aunt’s stories and seeing pictures from her slideshows.

“I speculate that something there resonated deeply with me, though it remained subconscious,” Conroy said. “I went through high school without going to any youth groups. By the time I entered Colby – a secular, very liberal college – I was fairly detached from my faith, though I still attended Mass regularly.”

In her freshman year, Conroy felt compelled to serve in Calcutta, as her aunt had done before her – a radical idea for a self-proclaimed “Maine home girl who rarely goes anywhere exotic.” Conroy traveled to India in May through June of 2011.

“Looking back, I’m a little awed by the audacity I had in pursuing this, and I can see clearly that it was truly Divine Providence,” Conroy said.

She served in Shishu Bhavan, one of the homes run by the Missionaries of Charity.

“Calcutta was an experience of religious awakening; for the first time in my life, I really saw authentic lived faith, Conroy said.

Each day began with morning Mass followed by work with the orphaned and abandoned toddlers in the morning and the disabled and severely ill children in the afternoon. Conroy visited a leprosy center, as well as the Home for the Destitute and Dying, where people are taken off the streets and in by the Sisters to die in comfort.

“In the midst of the poorest of the poor, the Sisters were brimming with joy. In serving the destitute and needy, I recognized that I was truly serving Christ,” Conroy said.

Conroy kept a journal and blog and processed her experience through writing. She vowed to not let her time in India only be a memory.

“It was the most transformative experience of my life, and essential to my faith formation.”

Throughout her time at Colby, Conroy has been a member of the Newman Council, the college’s Catholic community. After returning from India, she became the group’s co-leader for her junior and senior year.

Attending a liberal college has been difficult at times. The school’s message can be out of alignment with her morals and ideals. For example, Conroy cited the first-year wellness seminars, which preach sexual health, can often focus more on sexual freedom without discussion of a choice of abstinence.

“I’ve sought to live out an authentic Christian life at Colby, an environment that can be hostile to students of faith. And despite the struggles, difficulty, and sacrifice, I’ve found great joy in humbly living with integrity,” she said.

To Conroy, integrity means “living in such a way that I can embody the virtues I seek to cultivate. It means being authentic in my faith, staying true to my morals. In short, it means having a wholeness, allowing my actions to reflect my beliefs. And of course, it means being able to proclaim the truth in love, often not with words, but by my witness to the faith in the way that I live, love, and serve others.”

Many of her fellow students do not share Conroy’s views. When talking about difficult issues, Conroy is quick to say she never imposes her views, expects others to share their opinions or convert to her way of thinking. She wants them to understand her beliefs, always being able to respectively and productively disagree.

It’s usually the other person who brings up divisive topics like abortion, birth control or same-sex marriage.

During the Question 1 ballot debate last fall, Conroy attended a panel of people of faith explaining why their faith supports same-sex marriage.

“I never close myself off from other people’s opinions. Quite the opposite, I seek out people who have differing viewpoints, for if I am truly pursuing truth, I need to always be listening to others,” Conroy said.

“With the people at Colby, it’s really helpful to engage them from an intellectual stance, often we correlate religion with a lack of intelligence. If I can begin with an intelligent, logical, reason-based foundation as to why I believe something, it helps them to have a sense of where I’m coming from.”

The past two years, she has also attended the March for Life, a pro-life march in Washington, D.C., as well as being a small group leader for New Evangelization Week this past summer. It’s a retreat that teaches high school students the skills to evangelize among their friends in a new way.

The perception of dwindling religion or lack of piety in young Catholic Mainers just isn’t true, according to Conroy. While the state isn’t considered overly religious, Conroy says she has witnessed the Catholic Church “alive and well,” despite having a smaller diocese than others across the U.S. She describes a resurgence of faith:

“I continue to see my generation desire the true church and her timeless teachings, the orthodoxy that’s been present for 2,000 years. It is not about reconciling your faith with the moment in which you live; it’s about seeking truth and pursuing it, despite the cultural context that might tell you otherwise,” Conroy said.

As for her future, Conroy’s faith will be with her and the framework of her identity in her vocation and relationships.

“I will always see the world through eyes of faith – and therefore, through eyes of love,” Conroy said. “My Catholic faith has inspired me to always continue to grow in holiness, to cultivate virtues, and to serve the most vulnerable and needy. In serving others, I serve Christ. And my faith continues to bring about great joy, peace, solace, comfort, and ultimately, love.”

Kelsey Conroy, pictured in Calcutta, India where she served at Shishu Bhavan, Mother Teresa’s home for orphaned, and abandoned children. Courtesy photo

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