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The InterVIEW

‘Santa Claus’ tries to limit Christmas commercialism

Alicia Torres prays during a Feb. 15, 2008, Mass for college students that was celebrated by Cardinal George and Bishop J. Peter Sartain of Joliet in the Madonna della Strada Chapel on Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus.Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Less than two years out of college, Alicia Torres is still very much in touch with college students and their world. A pro-life activist since she was 13, Torres started the archdiocesan Respect Life Office’s outreach to college students first as a volunteer, then an intern. She has worked full-time with the office since shortly after graduating from Loyola University Chicago in 2007.

This year, the annual pilgrimage to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., for college students and young adults had 101 people signed up by the end of December, more than double the 45 who made the bus trip last year. They will occupy two of the six buses the archdiocese is sending, leaving Jan. 21 — a day later than the high school buses — and returning Jan. 24. She discussed her work with assistant editor Michelle Martin.

Catholic New World: Why did you want to work with college students?

Alicia Torres: I think it’s really important to understand the history we have in our country. You do a little bit of studying of the history of the 20th century and you see the impact that young people have had on every social movement, particularly the civil-rights movement.

You read about some of the things Dr. King said, and he even made the statement that the student activists were absolutely crucial to the civil-rights movement.

In my mind, the same thing goes for the pro-life movement, because there’s an energy that students can bring to it and an authenticity when they are not being paid to do it. This is something students do on their own time, and students don’t have a lot of time, especially these days. So for that kind of people, for them to say “In this little bit of time that I have, I’m going to do this because it’s something I truly believe in,” it makes an impact.

The real joy of working with the college students is that if you are able to form them well, when they go out into the world and they work in the business or medical field, or they have families, they are going to bring those pro-life values into the world with them. They might not be fulltime pro-life activists, but what we need is for people who believe in pro-life values to penetrate every aspect of culture.

CNW: How do you approach them with a pro-life message?

Torres: There is a lot of apathy — a lot of students may identify themselves as prolife, but I like to call them closet pro-lifers. Many of the campuses in the Archdiocese of Chicago may have a pro-life group, but for a lot of the students, the pro-life group means we have meetings and talk amongst ourselves. But to get them to go from having a meeting to actually being active on campus is a huge chore because they are timid. The campus environment is very liberal.

When we work with students, what we find is that they really need to be informed with the right information. People are throwing arguments that are really flawed at them all the time.

If the pro-life students don’t have the right information and they can’t make the correct arguments, then how are they going to affect culture? So with students, it’s about getting the right information to them and empowering them to take the message to campus.

What we’ve been doing in conjunction with a statewide group called Students for Life of Illinois, is provide students with information through podcasts. Because students — the last thing they want to do is to have to read more. So we’ve shifted from trying to get them to read things to using these 8- to 15-minute podcasts that they can download onto their iPod, listen to it between classes.

The top-down approach is a lot more challenging, because there are a lot of problems in working with the universities, including the Catholic universities. When you work with the administration, they are not as interested in dealing with the abortion issue, just because it is so contested on campus, especially at the Catholic universities.

They are more interested in working on human sexuality and trying to educate the students about their sexuality from the scientific and hopefully integrating the faith perspective, working with the health centers, making sure the campus health centers — especially on the Catholic campuses — have information about where a woman can go if she’s experiencing a crisis pregnancy. Because students shouldn’t have to leave college if they get pregnant.

CNW: What sparks the college students’ interest? Why do they care?

Torres: For a majority of the students, they realize they are the survivors. The students we are working with now, and myself, we’re all born after 1973, so we’re all born post-Roe. We might not be alive today and we know that. Between a third and fourth of the current generation is never born, and they know there are people who are literally missing, and that makes a huge impact on them.

Young people always want to be counter-cultural. During the ’70s, the sexual revolution was all about going against the grain. Now here are all these young people living with the fruit of the sexual revolution: a 50 percent divorce rate, 87 percent of Catholics are on artificial contraception, the divorce rate and the poverty rate have escalated since abortion became legal, the crime rate … people said all these things were going to go away, and they haven’t gone away, they’ve increased. Students see the hypocrisy — young people are very good at sniffing out hypocrisy, and that really motivates them to do something about it.

CNW: What kind of success are you having?

Torres: Now we’re seeing more students who are willing to step out on campus. They wear their pro-life T-shirts, things like that. It’s not like a surge of hundreds of people, but we have gone from almost none to some groups of college students going to pray at abortion clinics, do sidewalk counseling, some who will regularly go to volunteer at crisis-pregnancy centers. Some students work to bring pro-life speakers to campus. Students are more interested in trying to work with other groups, to partner on the things they can agree on.

They see the bridges need to be built. It’s not compromising about where we stand or what the truth is, but where are things that we can agree on, and let’s move on from there. We say, go in their door, and take them out your door. Because they are more apt to be formed that way, they are more apt to be successful in their evangelization. Because from a Catholic perspective, the prolife message is the message of Jesus Christ. We want everybody to have that life that he speaks about, that life that’s abundant.