We are at a pivotal moment for the Roman Catholic Church around the globe as Pope Francis continues to bring new energy and transformative ideas to the papacy. As we now welcome the Pope’s arrival in the United States, Americans of all creeds are eagerly awaiting to hear how the Holy Father will challenge us to make changes in our lives. And there is little doubt in my mind that his message for us will be challenging. To that end, the Pope’s visit affords us an occasion to reflect more deeply on Catholic life, not just in the United States overall, but particularly for us here at the College. What exactly does it mean to be Catholic at the College and how are Catholics living out their faith on our campus?
When it comes to religious groups on campus, about one-fifth of students identify as Catholics, which is more than any other group of believers. Of course, this statistic alone does not say much about practice and devotion; yet, at a college with such a significant population of Catholic students, many of whom attended Catholic schools prior to college (including myself), a strong campus ministry program is essential to encouraging Catholics to live out their faith at the College.
Williams Catholic as a student organization has an important responsibility to foster a positive environment in which students can practice their faith at the College. It is clear that Catholic students come here with very different levels of religious education, spiritual formation and faith development. Throughout my first year, it became increasingly clear to me that Catholics at the College have had extremely different experiences with their faith and that we each bring our own unique backgrounds and voices to the table. Catholic life at the College is hardly monolithic. Moreover, the diversity of experience that Catholic students bring to the College can make it difficult for Williams Catholic and the Chaplains’ Office to minister to the many Catholics on campus.
As in many groups, there is always the potential danger for Williams Catholic to become too cliquey or feel too exclusive. It seems that many students have felt this to be the case in recent years. I regret to say that many students have felt isolated from Williams Catholic, leading some to withdraw from Williams Catholic and not attend Sunday Mass. Of course, with the busy lives that all students at the College lead, from academics to athletics and many other commitments, not all of us can make time to attend religious services on a regular basis.
Now that we are starting a new year, it is important to acknowledge that Williams Catholic has not always succeeded in making all Catholic students feel welcome in our community or in hosting events that would interest a majority of Catholic students. This brings me to a point which I would like to make explicit, one which has been on my mind a lot as I think about the role that the organization must play: Williams Catholic is not an exclusive club, but a community of believers. Of course, no community is perfect. A community as diverse as ours is bound to come with challenges and difficulties of every stripe. But we face these challenges with confidence, knowing that when we come together to practice our faith, we gather (in the words of a Catholic Eucharistic prayer) “into one Body in Christ, who heals every division.”
Going forward, then, Williams Catholic needs to be a community in which all students, including non-Catholics, can feel welcome participating in. Above all, I hope that the experiences provided by Williams Catholic bring its members closer to each other and to God, as we try to live out the Gospel here at the College in communion with the universal Church.
It was not so long ago when Catholics faced discrimination here at the College. Indeed, Catholics, along with many other groups of people, at one point were not welcome at the College and were usually excluded from the now-abolished fraternity system. It is remarkable to think that within the last century, policies of prejudice against Catholics (though not all prejudices) have fallen away from the College, allowing Catholicism to be the most represented religious group on campus today. And progress will not stop here. Williams Catholic needs to continue expanding its efforts to make all Catholic students feel welcome to participate as much as they want in activities that can help each individual grow in faith and fellowship, pray, serve our brothers and sisters in need, attend Mass and live out our creed with the joy that comes from Christ.
So Williams Catholic has got some work yet to do. I reiterate: Making everyone feel welcome, especially those who may be uncomfortable with aspects of their faith, is a very challenging endeavor. But we move forward with hope, trusting in what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, called the “slow work of God.” More than anything, I hope that Williams Catholic can radiate the joy of loving and serving the Lord in all things. After all, Teilhard also said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”
The theme for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to the United States is “Love is our mission.” For Williams Catholic, love is our mission, too.
David Vascones ’18 is from Queens, N.Y. He lives in Mark Hopkins.