Catholicism not the only religion on campus

Author: Joanna Mikulski '03

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity can make it difficult for non-Catholics to find a place to express their faith. Traditionally only Roman Catholic worship services are held on campus on Sundays.

But contrary to popular belief, Catholicism does not hold a monopoly on campus worship.

Muslims pray every Friday in the nondenominational prayer room in the Coleman-Morse Center, the multipurpose facility built on the site of the former bookstore. And every Wednesday night at 10, in the chapel of men’s dorm Morrissey Manor, Catholic and Protestant students pray together at Interfaith Christian Night Prayer.

A group of 10 students under the direction of Campus Ministry intern Jemar Tisby ’02 and Frank Santoni ’97, assistant director for peer ministry and ecumenical activities, organizes the event, begun five years ago.

“We want to provide a midweek encounter with Christ,” said Tisby, who attended the prayer service as an undergraduate. “We try to be that base camp, that place where students can refill and make it to the weekend.”

The services, generally 45 minutes to an hour, feature contemporary, percussion-oriented music and the singing of the 15-member Celebration Choir. No clergy preside over the weekly meeting, generally attended by 50 to 60 people. Instead, students share their own reflections on topics relevant to their lives like doubt, relationships and religion.* *The leaders say they hope the individual stories can help others in their faith journey.

“We’re not there to teach. We’re there to testify,” said Santoni.

Spencer McSorley ’05, a team member and Methodist, said he found a home with the interfaith group his freshman year.

“There are so many religious activities on campus. Most are Catholic-oriented; some are Protestant, but it’s nice to be somewhere where the focus is just on what’s important. It just focuses on Christ, on Christianity, without emphasizing a particular faith tradition.”

“I felt at home and found a community immediately,” said Lisa Pendarvis ‘04, who is Catholic. "It’s unifying, a reminder that we all worship the same God."

Notre Dame’s undergraduate population has remained about 85 percent Catholic for years. To accommodate the mostly Protestant minority, Campus Ministry compiles and annually updates a list of churches and synagogues in the area. Although Notre Dame does not offer transportation, many of the churches offer to pick up students on campus.

Earlier this year Campus Ministry sponsored “What If I’m Not Catholic?”—a forum and information session targeted toward freshmen. The event brought together various campus groups that might appeal to non-Catholic students looking for a place to express their faith. Under one such program, Emmaus, students (usually friends or retreat participants) sign up together to form a small group with a leader. Each week they meet to discuss and reflect on Gospel readings.

Priscilla Wong, assistant director of administration and cross-cultural ministry, said she hopes that in coming years Campus Ministry can offer new services featuring different types of prayer. “We are always trying to figure out what the needs of the students are and to accommodate them.”

Santoni emphasized that while most non-Catholic students come to the University with an appreciation of Catholicism, they also come with questions about the school’s dominant religion. Often the most inquisitive are the parents of non-Catholic students, some of whom have initial concerns that their children will be forced to go to Catholic Mass (they’re not).

“They know that their kids are coming to a place where it might be harder for them to express their faith, but really there’s a lot going on, a lot for them,” Santoni said.