Authentic Community Life for College Students, Through Households

How can we build an authentic Catholic community amongst the youth of today who are more accustomed to tweeting than talking, more comfortable scrolling than in silence, yet are longing for human connection and belonging? This longing is not unique to this generation, but fundamental to the human heart. Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR perceived this need for an authentically Catholic culture and community on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville nearly 50 years ago when he, then president of the university, implemented Household Life. 

Households are faith-based communities of men or women living intentionally. Each Household has a covenant made up of pillars that the members of the Household seek to live by and to grow in. The covenant expresses the spirituality of the Household. The Household members agree to participate in multiple weekly commitments that enable them to live out the pillars of the covenant in concrete and consistent ways. As explained in the book No Longer Strangers, “Household ‘commitments’ are related to and flow out of the commitment the member made when they signed the covenant. They are the backbone of a strong community” (Plow and Doman, 25). A strong commitment to the covenant translates into strong relationships with God and with one’s brothers and sisters. Living out the covenant through weekly commitments allows the brothers and sisters in a household to exercise discipline and charity, helping them to be virtuous in all spheres of life. Gaby De Jesus (FUS ’19), now a high school mathematics teacher, recalls: 

Going on Household retreats and participating in daily Household commitments exposed me to a Catholic community centered on God that cares deeply about the building up of all its members. My experiences from Household have made me a better sister, daughter, teacher, friend, and above all, disciple of Christ.

Households are designed to form men and women of virtue within the context of intentional community. They allow their members to grow in accountability, responsibility, commitment, sacrifice, authentic friendship, and prayer. “Household life has inspired me to focus on the power of community and accountability when forming lifelong disciples,” says high school campus minister Megan McDonald (FUS ’21). She has been able to implement the skills to build community and the accountability that she learned through her experience in Household in her ministry to high school students. McDonald goes on to say, “We were not made to live alone. Each of us needs other people to hold us accountable in prayer and push us to be our best selves.”

Households are structured in such a way that encourages servant leadership. Each Household has a student coordinator who helps to facilitate Household commitments, activities, and initiatives. When a student wants to join a household, he or she will “intent” and go through a process of formation, led by a current member of the Household. Once inducted into the Household, the member would later have the opportunity to walk through formation with another intent. This creates a dynamic of giving and receiving among the members of the Household. Ultimately, though, it is the covenant that roots the members of the households. Natalie Garza (FUS ’21), a graduate student and graduate assistant, reflects on this saying, “The covenant gave us common ground to understand one another and challenge each other in becoming more conformed to Christ.” 

Perfection is not a requirement for membership. Rather, Households create a space for young men and women to strive for holiness and excellence together, knowing that they will not always live this out perfectly. There is room to make mistakes and to start anew. Garza explains her experience of this in the following words: 

Household for me was an experience of home…Like any home, household was a place to try and fail, rejoice and mourn, and simply live life with other faithful women. It is in the shared life and shared heart of household that I came to know more of myself and more of Christ. 

Household are also meant to be a source of joy, a community in which young men and women can discover and live the adventure of the Christian life. “Creating their own entertainment was an important component in building campus culture” (Plow and Doman, 27). Putting on dances, open mic nights, fundraisers of all kinds, community service, and participating in good-spirited competition allows each Household and each member of the Households to participate in creating a culture of joy and service, exercising their creativity and so participating in the handiwork of God even in the smallest of ways. The brothers and sisters one gains through Household are men and women to pray with, certainly; but also men and women with whom to study, play intramural sports, and essentially to journey to heaven with.  

While practical application at the primary and secondary level may look different than it does at the college level, students K-12 are equally made for such intentional community life with their peers. They long to be not only accepted, but also challenged and encouraged to be better. Referring to implementation of Household principles at the high school level, McDonald affirms, “This intimate experience of prayer and community is easily repeatable in retreat small groups, prayer groups, teams, and other extracurriculars at a high school level.” Having a community of peers striving for excellence centered on Christ orients students toward the good, enabling them to then choose the good for themselves. As primary and secondary students grow and mature, they will be faced with increasingly bigger life decision, first among these being where they will seek a college education. Experiencing authentic Catholic community and friendships that call one to holiness will help students choose a college environment that will continue to form them into men and women of virtue, seeking to serve The Lord first. 

Christ Himself gathered a community around Him, bringing people, firstly the 12 apostles, into communion through Himself. In the same way, smaller communities of faithful young men and women, coming together around the Person of Christ in a strong understanding of mission, identity and commitment, can contribute to the flourishing of a Catholic culture. It is left to teachers, coaches, and mentors to first model this way of authentic discipleship in community and then to invite their students into the riches of this way of life. “So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). 

Plow, Fr. Gregory, and Regina Doman. No Longer Strangers. Franciscan University of Steubenville, 2016.