Campus missionary says love can help young people overcome doubt

| August 3, 2016 | 0 Comments
Austin Riordan, right, eats lunch and talks with student Robert Klemm. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Austin Riordan, right, eats lunch and talks with student Robert Klemm. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Part ten in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

In May, Jimmy Abbott and his housemate, Austin Riordan, had just returned from a run when their conversation turned to forgiveness. Abbott shared an ongoing struggle: Despite going to confession and feeling assured of God’s forgiveness, he had long wrestled with some hurt he had caused his mom and brother.

“It’s just one of those things I’ll never be able to forgive myself for,” he told Riordan.

Riordan, 23, disagreed. He listened to Abbott and then prayed with him, and he offered simple counsel, advising the 22-year-old to ask for God’s help to let it go, in the name of Jesus. And Abbott did.

The burden was lifted, and it hasn’t returned, he said. “From here on out, there’s been a great peace with that,” Abbott said.

Riordan’s friends say he has a special ability — rooted in prayer and sustained by God’s grace — to help people overcome doubts about God and their faith.

Riordan recognizes it, too. He believes God puts people in his path who can benefit from his past struggles with doubt, trust and prayer.

It’s easy to think of counseling the doubtful — a spiritual work of mercy — as helping people bridge the divide between agnosticism and faith. Riordan, however, finds doubt to be subtler.

He sees doubt express itself in the students at his alma mater, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he serves as a mission leader for St. Paul’s Outreach, a college evangelization organization based in Inver Grove Heights.

In his experience, young adults aren’t rejecting God’s existence. They want to believe he exists and hope that he does.

“The biggest arena of doubt on [a] college campus is not the question of whether God exists, but rather students are asking if they are enough for God,” he said.

It’s a question he strives to answer through conversation and friendship.

“When I’m meeting with students, they don’t bring up their doubts,” he said. “The way to address doubt is love over time.”

St. Paul Outreach Mission Leader Austin Riordan, right, plays Spikeball with University of St. Thomas students Kuba Bursey, left, Richard Adrian and Robert Klemm.

St. Paul Outreach Mission Leader Austin Riordan, right, plays Spikeball with University of St. Thomas students Kuba Bursey, left, Richard Adrian and Robert Klemm. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

‘You need other people’

On a Tuesday in May, Riordan spent his noon-hour playing Spikeball — a lawn game one player described as “reverse volleyball” — before grabbing lunch with students. For SPO, building personal connections is key to helping students deepen their relationship with God.

Those connections made a difference for Riordan. As a college freshman and sophomore, he struggled with questions about Church teaching and Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.

A native of Plover, Wisconsin, Riordan went to Catholic schools and described faith as something that naturally interested him, although it wasn’t important to him in high school. When he entered college in fall 2011, he had a hard time meeting new people. He developed depression, he said, and would cycle between eating and exercising binges.

During January of his freshman year, he took a theology class in Rome and befriended some fellow students who were devout Catholics. They took him to daily Mass — something Riordan had never experienced outside of Catholic school. He didn’t understand the Italian, but he prayed and started to develop a personal relationship with God, he said.

“I had the courage to do that because I was with people who accepted me and were loving to me,” he said. “That changed my life course, going from lukewarm to taking deeper steps in my faith.”

Friendships were central to Riordan’s faith journey.

“I would have never gone to daily Mass by myself unless someone invited me to actually go with them,” he said. “I would have never been talking about Jesus or about the Catholic faith if someone else hadn’t initiated. I wasn’t going to walk through the doors of campus ministry by myself. Somebody needed to walk me in there, in the metaphorical way. When I think about that with my own work, I know that the people who really need campus ministry aren’t the people who are going to walk in there by themselves.”

As an undergraduate growing in faith, Riordan felt torn between the truths of the Church and how they demanded  that he change his life.

He went through a stretch during his sophomore year when he doubted Catholicism and Christianity in general. He had been going to daily Mass for a while, but on one particular Sunday, he walked out of church halfway through Mass.

He remembers thinking, “I don’t believe in the Eucharist, so why am I here?”

He went to a nearby park and just walked as he mulled  over his interior conflict.

“I was really running the race on my own, and that’s what allowed doubt to seep in,” he said. “Even though I had been very committed to the practices of our faith, doubt could still creep in if I didn’t have brothers or a community around me that could help remind me of the truth.”

That’s why SPO became so important to Riordan’s faith. He moved into an SPO household as a college senior.

“You need other people there to help fight with you,” he said, pointing to the household structure, which includes regular meals, community prayer, and the expectation of vulnerability and problem sharing.

Riordan sought out an SPO pastoral leader, Nick Redd, who listened to his struggle. Redd didn’t always know the answers to Riordan’s questions, but his presence and love steadied the undergraduate.

“The confidence in the Church came with time,” Riordan said. “Once I saw people living out the actual words in the Catechism, the words in the Bible, I started to believe in the goodness of them, and that allowed me to trust them.”

Gaining trust

Now Riordan works to be an example of God’s goodness. He finds students are rarely overt about their particular doubts. “You have to build up a lot of trust over time for someone to bring up their doubts to you,” he said. “We combat doubt by stepping out in faith.”

As a mission leader, Riordan focuses on genuine relationships with students. “It’s about building a real friendship,” he said, “and if we’re living our Christian lifestyle well, the name of Jesus will come up, but in a natural way, and people will wonder why we live this way, and they’ll begin to ask questions.”

Most of St. Thomas’ students have a faith background, Riordan said, whether they attended Catholic schools or a Lutheran Bible camp, but they arrive as searchers.

“You’ve come to college and you think of ‘searching,’ you don’t think of going back to what you’ve already been told,” he said. “You need someone else to present the Gospel in a way that you haven’t heard before.”

Many college students struggle with self-hatred or shame, he said, from engaging in activities such as premarital sex and binge drinking.

“There is immense doubt in people’s lives, especially young Catholics, who doubt that they are enough or have done enough for God to receive his mercy,” he added.

A communications and journalism major, Riordan started a video production business while in college, but his main focus continues to be his SPO missionary work. Last year, he also assisted in overseeing a household of nine men — mostly students — who live on Grand Avenue near St. Thomas.

“Austin is a great leader, but he’s a better brother. . . . That’s how he relates,” said Abbott, a welding student at St. Paul College in St. Paul. He attributes Riordan’s ability to listen and counsel to his “phenomenal prayer life.”

“This is what he believes: You can’t give what you don’t have,” he said. “He seeks wisdom from the Lord, and therefore the Lord gives it to him and uses him as an instrument. It’s as simple as that.”

Housemate and St. Thomas junior Kuba Bursey describes Riordan as someone who sincerely cares about others’ well-being and who has built Bursey’s confidence in his role in SPO.

“He’s just so ready to listen, and he understands where people are at,” he said. “He has no shame in telling people that he loves them and praying with them. He’s the Navy SEAL of missionary life.”

Modeling the Christian life

Riordan makes himself available for conversation or prayer with his housemates — even if it’s late at night or early in the morning. Some of those discussions address doubt. He recalled praying with a sick housemate for healing, but who expressed doubt that God would do that for him.

Given the evil in the world, young adults also struggle to reconcile pain and suffering with the basic Christian belief that God is good. Riordan said it’s hard, for example, to understand how a loving God would allow the clergy sex abuse scandal.

“We would all hope for a really good, loving God, and maybe they haven’t seen examples of that in their lives, in Christians who have been living that out, unfortunately,” he said. “What I’ve come to think is that people’s barriers to God — where the doubt is stemming — is not believing in God’s goodness.”

Riordan aims to combat that by being a Christian witness.

“Students are more willing to trust my experience because I’m closer to their age,” he said. “We are people who are showing other people how to live the Christian life. . . . This is how we live a full, rich, joyful life, a life that is giving of service to other people throughout our entire lives.”

He added: “If they don’t see that in me and in my co-workers and the guys I live with . . . how are they going to believe what we talk about?”



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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy