It’s supper time in the Habecker Dining Commons. Freshman Michaela Young, sitting at a table with her plate of mashed potatoes, sliced ham and green beans, makes the sign of the cross across her chest as she recites a prayer. Others stare at her awkwardly.
“Bless us, Oh Lord,” Young recites aloud, “and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
Young recites this prayer before every meal, but the uncomfortable stares are not unusual, she said. She gets them often.
“They look at me a little bit strangely at times just because … they notice I’m Catholic,” she said. “Because before I eat my meals, I am always making the sign of the cross and I’m always saying my specific prayer. There’s a specific prayer before meals that we [Catholics] say. We don’t just randomly say ‘thank you God’ or anything. It’s a specific prayer.”
Young was raised Roman Catholic in Kingsland, Ga., attended Catholic primary, secondary and tertiary schools. She chose, however, to attend a non-Catholic university.
“I wanted to further my relationship with God, and I didn’t think I could find that at a Catholic school,” Young said.
Young eventually chose Huntington University. Little did she know, however, that only three percent of the student body are Roman Catholics. Young was not surprised by the responses and reactions to her faith by the students.
“I’ve had a lot of questions from Protestant students here,” she said. “They’ve wondered, like, what’s the difference? They’ve asked me a lot about their assumptions because I know a lot of people say that we just worship Mary [and] we don’t pay as much focus on God or Jesus, and there’re always those assumptions.”
In her attempts to explain her Catholic beliefs, Young was left annoyed and upset.
“In a way, it’s kind of hard,” said Young.
Arthur Wilson, campus pastor, believes that the university creates a sort of traditional milieu that is comfortable for Catholics.
“I wouldn’t say that we make accommodations for particularly Catholics,” he said. “However, we do offer a worship service that has a lot of elements within it that Catholics would find very familiar and be comfortable with …. I’m talking about our Divine Hours service. Our more liturgical and contemplative service where we do a lot of the creeds and a lot of the readings and so on and so forth.”
Young has noticed the more liturgical and contemplative services.
“I enjoy more of the traditional things like Divine Hours,” she said.
Even though the Friday Divine Hours presents Young with a traditional style of worship, she still faces the stereotypes.
“I know definitely that Catholics here [at HU] get viewed upon as uptight than the people here that are of other denominations,” she said.
Meanwhile, Young spends time clarifying what Catholics actually believe and practice to Protestant students who confront her about it.
“I do not pray to Mary,” Young said to a Protestant student. “I kind of pray through her … I use Mary just like I use the saints to pray through them because I know, if like, I send a prayer their way, then they would be able, with how divine they are, to get it to God …. I think they hold divine power. They were made saint for a reason, and Mary had a role and was chosen by God to have His Son, and they’re all worthy and definitely should receive praise and worship for all they have done.”
Bo Helmich, assistant professor of worship leadership, said there are a few fundamental theological differences and practices between Catholicism and Protestantism.
“The most obvious difference is that Catholics maintain communion with the Bishops of Rome, the pope,” he said. “The polity or the government structure of the church is a hierarchical structure that views the pope as the representative of Christ on earth and the visible leader of the worldwide church. Protestant polity tends to be more at a local level … Catholics view the church as integral to the process of salvation and Protestants are more likely to view their relationship with God as a personal relationship that often ought to involve the church, but not necessarily.”
In the classes that he teaches, Helmich said he makes an “effort to not describe the Christian faith in a way that would be unrecognizable by Catholics.”
Neither Helmich nor Wilson considers themselves Roman Catholics.
“Anytime you use the word ‘worship’ and attach it to any other being or person other than Christ–God–I think that’s a sticky position to have,” he said. “Worship alone is reserved for God. As followers of Christ–Christians–I think Christ made it very clear that his method of operating, of living, of functioning was to offer worship to God the Creator. So when we offer worship to the saints and Mary … that borders on idolatry and that can conflict with what Christians hold to be true.”
Although Wilson might call some Roman Catholic practices a form of idolatry, Helmich differed.
“They wouldn’t say so,” Helmich said. “They would view their prayers to the saints as an expression of the doctrine of the communion of saints which is part of the creed.”
He said “to label it as idolatry is probably over dramatic.”
Helmich said that praying to the saints is a practice that deserves careful critique and scrutiny, but “that critique would be most effective coming from Catholics who have a vested interest in improving their own worship, not from those outside the Catholic Church who have no vested interests in improving that practice.”