While many Catholics grow up knowing a lot about Jesus, that is not the same thing as knowing him personally, Cardinal Donald Wuerl told students at the University of Maryland’s Catholic Student Center while celebrating Mass in College Park on March 15.

Jesus is God’s son come down to earth, and “we can know that, we can understand that, but do we know Him, have we encountered Jesus as living?” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Cardinal Wuerl discussed some of the ways to come to know Jesus, such as prayer, Mass and the Eucharist. Prayer “can take any form or no form at all,” he said, adding that all that needs to be said is, “Jesus, I just want to have this moment with you.”

During Lent, the Church celebrates the story of Jesus’ life and what He did for us, said the cardinal, but in addition to remembering that, we need to “open our hearts enough to try to know him” and “if you do that, he makes the response.”

Cardinal Wuerl encouraged the students to make it a goal for Lent to have a greater personal friendship with Jesus. During Mass, the Eucharist is “a visible, tangible sign Jesus is here and He loves you”, the cardinal said. “He is always with us if we simply take the moment to talk to Him.”

Following Mass, the cardinal joined the students for dinner as a part of the weekly Wednesday Mass and dinner held at the Catholic Student Center.

While Monica Koh doesn’t have time to come to the event every week, she made sure to fit it into her schedule when the cardinal was coming.

Koh first came to the Catholic Student Center about two years ago when she was going through a difficult time in her life, and while no longer practicing her Catholic faith, she had an instinct to turn to the Church for help. When she did, she met with Ann Gradowski and Lisa Lytwyn, staff members of the center, and “they saved my life,” she said. Since then, coming back to the Catholic Student Center has “reaffirmed everything” she learned about the faith as a child, she added.

After eating dinner, Cardinal Wuerl once again addressed the students, telling them that while it is important for disciples to know the Lord, everyone in the Church is also supposed to be an evangelizing disciple who takes the Good News out to the rest of the world.

“You don’t have to go too far,” he told the students, because they have the entire college campus surrounding them.

By establishing the Church, with Peter as the rock, Jesus was making sure “there would be some place we could go to hear the story all over again,” the cardinal said.  The only reason that we know the message of Christ, he said, is because there was someone to pass it on to us.

“When you find something really wonderful that has great meaning, you are going to want to go and share it,” he said.

Cardinal Wuerl took questions from the students, which covered a variety of challenges that they have been faced with while living the faith on campus. When asked what to say to friends who have fallen away from the Church because of their disagreement with certain teachings, Cardinal Wuerl said it is important to remember that no family agrees about everything, and to “keep reminding people that [they are] part of the family” even if they disagree.

“You don’t start by saying, ‘because I am perfect I come to church,’” the cardinal said. “You say ‘I need church because I’m not perfect.’”

One student asked what it was like to have such direct contact with the pope and papal authority.

“We all experience papal authority when we say the Creed,” the cardinal said, because the reason why we know that those are the words the apostles said is that they have been passed down from pope to pope. But regarding Pope Francis in particular, Cardinal Wuerl said, “What you see is exactly the way he is.”

“He clearly is caught up in the love of God and has never lost the simple touch of being such a nice person,” the cardinal added.

Following dinner, Cardinal Wuerl and a group of more than 20 students gathered for the first listening session in the Archdiocese of Washington for the 2018 Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” In preparation for the Synod, Pope Francis is asking bishops to respond to a questionnaire about how the Church serves the needs of young people. In order to do so, bishops around the world are holding listening sessions, where young people have the opportunity to voice their perspective in response to the questions.

The questionnaire asked what young people want from the Church, to which students responded with answers such as authenticity, belonging, peace, and the sacred. They also said their generation desires a safe place to go to truly ask questions and feel validated in their concerns.

In response to a question about why young people drift away from the faith, one student responded that usually it is because they were raised in the faith but “never entered into a personal relationship with the Lord.”

When asked which Catholic gatherings have had a significant impact on their faith lives, one student summed up everyone’s answers by saying “any event that allowed us to meet someone living out their faith fully and joyfully.”

One student wished to ask Pope Francis, in a world increasingly focused on labels and divisiveness, “how do we achieve greater unity and what role does he envision for us in creating that unity?”

To wrap up the session, Cardinal Wuerl thanked the students for sharing their thoughts, saying that usually when the pope has something important to discuss “the same people show up,” but “If we’re going to be talking about young people, don’t you think we should talk to them?”

Briony Waite, a junior who is preparing to enter the Church at Easter, and senior Joe Szczybor said they appreciated the fact that the Church wants to listen to what they have to say and were excited for the cardinal to visit.

“Cardinal Wuerl is our shepherd here in this archdiocese,” Szczybor said. “He’s our connection to ‘the Rock’” – the pope, as the successor to St. Peter.

Waite had just seen the cardinal at the Rite of Election a few days previously, and had the opportunity to sit at the same table with Cardinal Wuerl and other RCIA candidates during the March 15 dinner.

“The fact that he came and would sit down to have dinner and talk and ask questions about our story is such an incredible and powerful thing to experience,” she said.