How to be Catholic at a religiously diverse university

by | Nov 22, 2021 | Religious Life, Sacraments, Spirituality

“I was reading the bible in my theology class,” one student said. “I was shocked at how rude it depicts Prophet Ibrahim and Sara. They are so disrespectful to God. She literally laughs at Allah!” We were in a Muslim Life Class, a mostly informal get together for students at Loyola University Chicago. It’s a chance for students to check in with the chaplain and vent about a frustrating class, parental problems, or relationship woes. They also bring religious questions such as if it is permissible to kiss the Quran after reading it. I was there as an observer at this particular class, but it was the student’s comment which pulled me into the middle of their reflection. Her point was well made and showed a fundamental difference between Jewish and Muslim ideas about God. From the Jewish perspective, it is normal to question God and grapple with His decisions. The Patriarch Jacob receives his name Israel because he literally wrestles with God. However, for Muslims devotion to God is shown in obedience, listening to God and fulfilling his commands with a clear intention. 

This fall semester, I have been trying to have more contact with students from different religions. I attended a Hindu puja service with the practice of arti and saw how the lifting of a candle evoked religious feeling, a sense of connection that rose above logical disputation. I attended an event about Palestine and saw how religious identity is deeply tied to ethnic and political issues. We painted sheets of drywall with graffiti, mirroring the real-life art that is created on the walls separating Jewish and Palestine communities in the Holy Land. Entering the community I was able to bear witness to their cries for justice, just as Jesus did to the marginalized members of his community. 

In October, I was able to offer hospitality and invite a Jewish chaplain to lunch and receive hospitality by going to the Jewish students’ shabbat dinner. We dressed up in halloween costumes and enjoyed each other’s company. The gathering reminded me that there are many scenes in the Gospels where Jesus’s teaching seems to be secondary to His actual presence. Just show up! Think, for example, of when Jesus dines at the house of the Pharisees and enters without any agenda. Jesus is invited to dine with people with whom he disagrees, and he shows up.

After fall break, I walked out of a mass at our university chapel, feeling a deep spiritual and sacramental connection to Jesus. Right by the side of the church I saw friends getting ready for ʽasr, the prayer that Muslims recite in the late afternoon. I was literally a tabernacle, filled with God, coming out to meet my Muslim classmates and friends. I brought God closer to them, but God also met me in their faces. It has taken me a lot of time to be humble enough to see God in people that I normally don’t connect to my own faith.

Recently, I’ve been doing just that! I’m helping create a group of students committed to interreligious dialogue. The group is small but with a great spirit, featuring students from Christian, Muslim, and non-Abrahamic religions. One of my Jesuit brothers asked me what my goal for the group was. “I suppose it’s about understanding experience,” I said. “I want students to understand the religious and spiritual experiences of other people and at the same time grow in understanding their own experiences of religion and how those experiences support, confound, or continue alongside their own religious convictions.” 

My hope is not to limit conversation but to invite people into a space of possibility, a possibility that demands vulnerability. Vulnerability is a foundational value for me. Students share personal experiences, discussing topics that are both personal and emotionally charged. So much of interreligious dialogue is focused on top-down perspectives of what differentiates religious tradition, rendering encounters with the religious other ineffectual. On the other hand, a tendency exists to lump all religions traditions together, forcing people committed to interreligious cooperation to focus on common values. (“All religions believe that human beings deserve to be treated with dignity.”) Unfortunately, this too limits the scope of how we can truly be ourselves, open and present to a person who holds views and opinions different from our own.

The Church at large and the Society of Jesus in particular pushes me, as a seminarian, toward this encounter with the other. Dialogue and mutual cooperation with people who think differently involves a “new way of living as a Christian.” [1 – Complementary Norms, 268.] This new way of living can be radical in our current social and political environment, because it seeks “what unites rather than what divides.” It includes seeking “to know, understand, and love others as they wish to be known and understood.” When I look out at the world, I can see how hungry people are for such a way of being. 

Religious plurality is a given in the United States, and the diversity is likely to grow outside of traditional religious institutions. As one student told me at an event, “I’m actually Jewish but I’m not that interested in practicing.” Following Jesus is about responding to need. If we believe that our faith has something unique to offer, some claim to truth and experience that cannot be replicated outside the Church, let’s live it out authentically. Part of that authentic living out must include the ability to explain and expand the personal and experiential dimension of our faith life. Our faith is not lived out solely in one’s head, heart, or hands but in a dynamic interaction of all three.

When I enter into these inter-religious faith sharings, I bring my whole self. I am able to share deeply about my spiritual experiences connected to Jesus Christ, who for me is the physical embodiment of God’s love and compassion for His people. Like Jesus in the Gospels, however, I also ask questions and listen. Think of how Jesus asks questions to the disciples, to the Pharisees, to the woman at the well. Oftentimes Jesus is met with an exacerbated silence or confusion. At other moments, a person’s conversation with Jesus changes them. What is important is the encounter. In our own small way, our faith sharing group of inter-religious students is also making room for such an encounter, an encounter where a person is open to being changed, open to seeking things from a different perspective. 

At that first Muslim Life Class I went to, another student asked the chaplain if her cat would go to Jannah, the Islamic concept of paradise or heaven. The chaplain offered some different theologians’ ideas. One guy said this. Another guy said that. Then he asked her which explanation she thought was most satisfying. And why? We would all do well to face interreligious encounters with that level of curiosity. May we all be as curious to one another as God is curious about us. May we all be interested in one another as God is interested in us.

Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash.


Andrew Milewski, SJ   /   All posts by Andrew