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Reclaiming religiosity

| Tuesday, September 7, 2021

One of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Notre Dame — and I don’t think I am alone in saying this — is “Catholic.” With the Basilica of the Sacred Heart protruding from the heart of campus, a chapel in every residence hall and a name honoring the Virgin Mary, our school’s Catholicism is certainly not a secret. Many students and faculty have specifically chosen Notre Dame for their studies and work because of its Catholic identity and celebrate the opportunity to engage in academic inquiry in the comfort of a Catholic environment. I, for one, generally enjoy the spirituality and communal nature of campus life. However, the more time I’ve spent at Notre Dame, the more I’ve come to feel like somewhat of a second-class Christian. 

I try to attend weekly Church services, I enjoy theological inquiry and debate and aim to observe Church teachings. Yet I don’t feel quite as Christian as my peers who attend daily Mass, associate with Catholic social groups or belong to spiritual clubs. It’s almost as if we’ve come to view these members of our community as the true Christians, while the rest of us are watered down worshippers. 

As a disclaimer, I am an Orthodox Christian and cannot speak from the Catholic perspective. However, the doctrines of our Churches are extremely similar, and I speak as a member of the general Christian population on campus. Don’t label us as the “non-religious” simply because we don’t attend campus youth groups and retreats or aren’t members of the various pro-life clubs the school has to offer. Our Christian identity is up to us, alone, to claim, not to the “ultra-religious” to bestow. The visible external actions and factors that we traditionally associate with expressing faith — such as praying the Rosary, reading the Bible in a coffee shop, etc. — are not a measure of internal piety and humility. If you feel inclined to focus on these external practices because they help you lead the faith life you desire, more power to you — but they are not determinants of religiosity. 

Every year when Lenten season would come around at my Catholic elementary school, my friends and I would proudly proclaim at recess what we were “giving up” that year. My answer was almost always “sweets,” and my best friend’s was “chips.” Back then, we measured piety in desserts declined and television watching forgone. My more mature self, however, can’t help but recall Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 6:17-18, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.” He preaches a similar message a few verses earlier: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6: 5-6). The visibility of our faith practices does not necessarily correspond to their value; in fact, it might even diminish it. 

Practicing the Christian Faith is both personal and communal. The communal aspect is crucial when we are building our faith foundation — attending Sunday school and Church outings and talking about Church teachings. However, we must do the rest of the work behind closed doors, when no one is around to applaud us. When all is said and done, life is not a group project, nor is it peer-graded. It’s every student for him or herself, at the mercy of the Teacher’s pen. Faith is a personal test, and while you might peek over your classmate’s shoulder, you’ll eventually realize you can’t copy their essay for the final question. 

Still, some “visibly” Christian people insist on offering their two cents regarding their peers’ work. Condescending comments condemning abortion always seem to make their way into political discussions, even in response to unrelated or only loosely related topics. Taking a holier-than-thou stance, some self-identified highly religious individuals question the character of pro-choice campus members as a means to stifle political discourse of all sorts. They’ve made themselves the religious authority because they clothe themselves in the armor of rosary beads and station themselves behind a fortress of theological textbooks. 

In the US in general, Christianity has come to be associated with social conservatism, with certain fanatics becoming its face. As a result, the richness and core concepts of the Christian faith have taken a backseat to certain political issues. All this has happened because we “ordinary” Christians have sat by silently as a vocal segment of our population dominated the conversation. We must now speak up and remind the world that Christianity is a religion of salvation, solidarity, dignity and love.

To my fellow “ordinary” Christians, our faith is not less strong because it is less visible, not watered down because it gets drowned out by stronger voices, nor is it less representative of Christianity because it doesn’t fit the mainstream conception. Even I have fallen into the trap I now write to criticize: relegating my own faith status to one of semi-Christianity. I sometimes find myself thinking, “I’m Christian, but not that Christian.” Of course, some people truly are not “that Christian,” and have decided they do not wish to actively practice the Faith even though they were baptized or grew up in a Christian household. My point is simply that a substantial segment of the Notre Dame student body might not externalize their Faith as much as the most obviously Christian students, but we do not have any less of a claim to it. It is our job to reclaim religiosity — to capture and convey the true essence of it rather than a certain sociopolitical slant.  

This column is not meant to attack socially conservative Catholics or the more “visible” Christians, but rather to allow space for the rest of us Christians to embrace religiosity as well. Spirituality and faith will not look the same in every religious person’s lives, or even in all Christians’ lives. I am not calling into question the religiosity of the particularly “visible” Catholics but rather challenging how we have come to regard religiosity: as something that can be evaluated by external displays or political affiliations. Some Christians are simply less conspicuous about their faith life than others, but we are here, and we are just as Christian.

As a renowned Catholic university, Notre Dame has a dynamic, beautiful community of faith and is full of individuals seeking God and goodness but — it is not homogeneous, and it is not encapsulated by its most conspicuous Catholics. 

A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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