At Northwestern, Catholics are in the religious minority with only 6 percent of the student body coming from a Catholic background. Despite the fact that Catholicism and Reformation theology are both Christian traditions, the history between the two presents an interesting dynamic for NWC students who are Catholic.
On NW’s campus, Pax Christi (Latin for “peace of Christ”) is a club that offers a space for Catholics to come together to discuss their faith, learn and reflect on experiences. The club is open to non-Catholics as well, but the majority of attendees are students who come from a Catholic background. The club has 45 members; however, regular attendance at meetings is usually between 8 and 10 individuals.
It might seem strange to think that being on a Christian campus would present a challenge for Catholic students, but it can be a frustrating experience. Catholics often live out and express their faith in different ways from Protestants. This can result in ignorance and misconceptions about their beliefs.
Nayely Becerra, a student at NW, recalled an experience during her freshman year when a conversation during a D-group meeting turned to the topic of Catholicism. Some of the students attending the group went so far as to question the salvation of Catholics. These inquiries most likely came from ignorance, not hostility, but Becerra was extremely offended nonetheless.
Joleen Wilhelm is a Catholic and a member of Pax Christi who has been attending meetings since she arrived at NW. As someone who grew up attending Catholic school and immersed in the Catholic tradition, she said her transition into the community at NW was harder than she anticipated.
“I definitely took for granted being in the majority; I noticed that when I’m here I rarely do the sign of the cross,” Wilhelm said.
The sign of the cross is something done in many traditions, not only Catholicism, but even so, it is a foreign tradition to many. Tena Jeppesen echoed Wilhelm’s comments; she said she doesn’t feel comfortable doing the sign of the cross while on campus. Jeppesen also shared experiences of some of the difficulties with attending church, specifically with the possible problems that arise when deciding where to go and whom to go with.
“Attending church as a group of students is a really big deal here,” Jeppesen said. Because of this, students can sometimes find themselves torn between two different communities — that of the Reformed majority with whom they’ve made many friends or those of their shared Catholic belief. Neither group intends to exclude the other, but when Sunday services begin, Catholic students at NW are faced with a choice that many other students don’t have to think about.
Madigan Maere also comes from a Catholic background and recalled a similar experience when arriving at NW. While growing up in the Catholic Church, she was surprised by the differences between the Reformed Church in America and Catholicism. She recalls being questioned about believing in idols and worshiping Mary.
Additionally, Catholic students face difficulty with things that most other students who come from a Protestant denomination take for granted. Catholics experience their faith in the context of tradition, natural law and Scripture. Although many Protestant denominations place more emphasis on Scripture than tradition, Catholicism makes sense of the Bible while concurrently consulting the wisdom of the church. This means that the ways Catholics experience Scripture reading and prayer is different from the way Protestant denominations experience it.
Both Maere and Jeppesen said they have experienced difficulty in classes or other situations due to the different way they interact with Scripture in their faith. Maere pointed out that Catholics traditionally aren’t heavy Scripture readers, and Jeppesen talked about being baffled by the scriptural knowledge of other students.
When it comes to the issue of prayer, Protestants often take a conversational, almost impromptu approach to prayer. This is different from the Catholic tradition, in which structured and liturgical prayers are used. Maere, Jeppesen and Chris Hausmann of the sociology department all said they’d had experiences of being uncomfortable when praying in an impromptu manner in a group setting.
“The danger is, we don’t recognize differences in the way we live out our faith and the way we pray,” Hausmann said. “If we don’t understand those differences it leads us to misinterpret them.”
The experiences of Catholic students and faculty members point to a need for greater honesty, deeper discussion and solidarity across denominations.
The differences between the Catholic and Reformed traditions are many, but they present an opportunity for growth.
It’s important to celebrate similarities and understand the common ground that many denominations share. Equally important, is the need to know and understand the differences between them. Catholics cross themselves, pray differently and might spend less time memorizing scripture than some reformed denominations; however, it does not mean they are somehow worse off or less Christian than others. The Christian faith can be experienced and practiced a number of different ways.
“Part of coming together as Christians, whether they be Catholic or not, has to do with being honest with one another,” Hausmann said. “It is important to express and understand each others experiences.”
Many NW students who wish to attend a Catholic mass go to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alton, the Catholic church closest to Orange City.
For those interested in understanding how our differences in tradition and similarities in beliefs play into how we experience our faith, we can reach a position from which the experience might help us better participate in God’s kingdom — no matter what denomination we claim.