FRONT ROYAL, VA.—It's the day before spring break at Christendom College here overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. But at the 11:30 a.m. weekday mass, the Rev. John Heisler reminds his flock that there is no vacation from being a child of God. Not that these students, who line up later for confession, need reminding. Catholicism pervades every aspect of life at this tiny school. It is, says the school motto, the "air that we breathe."
Such devotion—60 percent attend daily mass—is unusual at any college, but it's increasingly rare even among church-affiliated colleges. A survey of 38 Roman Catholic colleges commissioned five years ago by the conservative Cardinal Newman Society found growing numbers of students holding non-Catholic beliefs, such as supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights, and 9 percent leaving the church altogether. "Their faith is shaken because they are left on their own to decipher what is authentically Catholic and not," says Patrick Reilly, head of the Newman Society.
By contrast, the 397 students at Christendom intend to leave college with their faith fully intact. About 8 percent of the alumni have become priests or religious, but most students come simply to learn and grow as Catholics.
When Pope Benedict XVI meets with Catholic school officials on his U.S. visit in April, he is expected to single out colleges like Christendom as institutions that represent the clarity of religious principles that he has been promoting.
Fidelity. Christendom was founded in 1977 by Warren Carroll, a Catholic historian, in reaction to the sexual revolution and other perceived threats to traditional Catholic doctrine. Here academics follow a limited, conservative Catholic curriculum. There are no biology or chemistry classes and only six majors: philosophy, history, theology, English, political science, and classics. All professors pledge annually to stay loyal to Vatican authority.
About half of Christendom's students (average freshman sat scores are about 1800) have been home-schooled. They adhere to a modest, professional dress code—ties for the men—and a midnight curfew for students under 21. Even their social life revolves around religion. St. Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day are celebrated not only secularly but, along with other feast days, as occasions to learn about the saints. Saturdays are often spent protesting outside abortion clinics, and 50 students and 15 faculty members are traveling to Washington this month to see the pope.
Christendom students feel an immediate bond with one another, they say, because they don't have to defend their positions on premarital sex and birth control or feel isolated because of their devotion. "There is no risk involved," says sophomore Tom Vicinanzo, 19. "When you go to other universities, you don't know what you are going to get."