DALLAS — “You will pay a price for the values you hold. Thanks be to God.”

We were very far away from Iowa and New Hampshire and Super Tuesday. A few nights into the New Year, 3,000 Catholic college students were gathered for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ Student Leadership Summit. Their surprise speaker — who might look out of place if he had been on the official agenda — was former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who, at the time, was among those running in a crowded Republican field for president of the United States.

But this was no campaign stop. He was taking a moment off the campaign trail to inspire and be inspired.

He started out talking about prayer, prepping the crowd for their next speaker on the topic, Sister Bethany Madonna from the Sisters of Life. Here he wasn’t so much a candidate for president of the United States in a year where party rules relegated him to undercard debates, but a loving father imparting some hard-learned wisdom and drinking in their zeal for Christ.

Santorum was received with a standing ovation, before and after. They recognized in him someone who was trying to live his faith, in private and in public.

And Christian-to-Christian, disciple-to-disciple, Santorum said: “Get close to [God] because He speaks in whispers.” He encouraged daily Mass, frequent Confession, and prayer for the hearing.

To these 20-somethings he said: You will ask yourself: What is God’s will for me? What does he want me to do? The times in his life, he shared, where he felt “most in the zone — where God wanted me” is when he did have prayer and daily Mass and Confession as priorities. These are “those things that keep you in the Spirit.”

And he turned to them about the “non-judgmental” mood of the times and their generation — that doesn’t have a tolerance for grappling with good and evil and God’s truth. Hard times will come and are coming, he said. Embrace them with the courage that comes from confidence in God and his call to you, his mission for you, Santorum encouraged. Remember, he said: “You are supposed to be persecuted if you are speaking Jesus’ name. Praise God if you are.”

Santorum, who himself has publicly self-reflective about things he could have worded better, talked about the importance of “speaking truth in love” and “always emanating the truths you speak, always with the love of God on your tongue.”

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing: “look up to the cross,” Santorum said. “That is real persecution. And that is love.” And that is who we are as Christians and what the world needs.

Santorum added, “You are going to fail a lot. Don’t let that dissuade you. Be good, be better.” It was clearly a regular plea to God for himself.

He talked about the importance of faithfulness in the little details of life as making all the difference.

Earlier, too, he had talked about the fact that he had “strayed” from his faith, was “lukewarm,” it “wasn’t the center” of his life — his line is “I went to the U.S. Senate and found the Lord.” A colleague had invited him to go to Bible study, which helped a lot. He also “heard the Gospel preached like I’ve never heard it preached” one day at Mass, his world “rocked” at 37 years old. Which clearly wasn’t an endpoint.

He talked about the importance of accountability in the integrated life of faith and perhaps especially in public life — having people who will be honest with you, brutally so when necessary.

To these young leaders, Santorum stressed their call and the need. “You are in a world that is in darkness. You are that spark of light.” It wasn’t merely a pep talk. He was highlighting hope.

Not of the we are the ones we have been waiting for variety. These students, who I spent a few days with, are on fire with the love of the Lord: They know they have a Savior and they know others need to know.

Pope Francis’s year of mercy is real to them and urgent. Living on campus they see people looking for love in all the wrong places. They see the misery of idolatrous ideologies. They see people in pain everywhere they look.

But it does not depress them. They see the hope too. The great promises of Jesus Christ, the reality his life, death and resurrection is. They want to share it. Which means hard conversations and the Little Sisters of Poor having to go to the Supreme Court and all the rest.

Earlier in the night, Senator Santorum had reflected on why he found himself in politics in the first place, drawn into it by an interest and a desire to serve. And whatever you think of Rick Santorum or any other candidate: If you see a man trying to live his faith, encourage him in that.

Maybe especially when he is derided. Or maybe especially when he’s left the race and you’re grateful good ever men bother with politics in the first place.

After the Iowa Caucus, along with a number of candidates, Santorum dropped out of the race for the nomination. But his message that night is critical and more enduring than any political speech or campaign.

If you find yourself scratching your head — at best — about politics during this election year, take a page from this playbook: Keep focused on Christ and his light and encourage the good. It’s all around you in your community. Look for it. Support it. Make it known.

And pray. Pray for people — and in politics. Pray that we are better, everyday.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of the National Review Online. She is co-author of the newly updated edition of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice” (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).