A Non-denominational Christian at a Catholic University

Author: Lisa von Werder


How well can I really fit in at Notre Dame if I’m not Catholic?

I am one of the 18 percent of Notre Dame students that don’t identify as Catholic. I guess it really shouldn’t surprise me that so many people here are Catholic. This is a Catholic institution! Every residence hall has its chapel, and those only make up about half of the chapels on campus. There’s a crucifix in almost every room. Devotion to Catholicism is apparent everywhere you go. Looking back, I honestly think I had a valid fear of navigating such a saturated culture.

Right off the bat, I want to give a little disclaimer. Notre Dame doesn’t force its beliefs on you. You have a choice on how much of it you let in. I appreciate that Notre Dame is very good at simply having the opportunities to easily get involved in practicing Catholicism. They are accessible and present, but you will never have to do anything you don’t choose to do.

To be fully transparent, I do believe I have it easier than some other non-Catholics on campus, so I feel some hesitancy in writing this. I identify as a non-denominational Christian, and I had a fairly spiritual high school church experience. I felt secure enough in my faith to serve on the worship team by singing and playing keys. I’m well aware that I practice a religion that is historically favored. 

My father was raised Lutheran, so we went to a Lutheran church in my childhood, and when I attended my first Catholic Mass, I was surprised at how familiar it was. But there was always something that felt like it wasn’t exactly the same (because it wasn't). It’s like that John Mulaney bit when he hadn’t gone to Mass in a while and they had changed “and also with you” to “and with your spirit.” I had that moment. Only imagine that feeling of being caught off guard extended to the entire service.

I eventually got past that by regularly attending Sunday night Mass in Alumni Hall. I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog, but I enjoy their masses because the music is always so good, it’s well-attended, and I like to sit next to my friends. It’s a good way to be part of a larger community that shares in hearing a good message. If I didn’t have so many friends in Alumni, I’m not sure I’d ever go to Mass. If I didn’t have so many familiar faces in the room, and so many other unknown faces to blend into, I would have been far too afraid to even try. 

And so, I go to Mass every Sunday. But when it comes time for communion, I cross my arms over my chest and receive the verbal blessing instead.

I don’t know all the words to the responses, and I barely know all the words to the responses we sing.

The rest of the room says the entirety of the Nicene Creed, but I stop before the very last section, almost unfailingly, because I don’t know if I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. When I say it, am I contributing false faith to a body that believes something I don’t? Am I saying it for their sake, or mine, or God’s, as it should be? When I don’t do the hand gestures after the announcement of the Gospel, do I stick out? Can people tell I’m faking it? Can people tell just from looking at me that I haven’t felt connected to God since high school—if I even felt it then?

I brush it off and move on. If my theology classes were supposed to help with this, they didn’t do a very good job.

Ah, yes. The theology requirements. Every Notre Dame student has them. One introductory theology course, and another slightly more advanced one. Aside from those, in my Moreau First Year Experience class, we had to submit a written response reflecting on the five pillars that Notre Dame strives to embody. It was heavily based on Catholicism, of course, so without a Catholic background, it made it really hard to understand the material and get a good grade.

Theology was different—in fact, I had two drastically different experiences. The first was a basic Foundations of Theology class, in a freezing classroom in the basement of Geddes Hall, and I was so terribly uninterested in the material that I almost didn’t pass the class. For my second course requirement, I carefully chose a class called Theology of Christian Love, which was less focused on the specifics in Catholicism and instead went more in-depth on the representations of the Trinity—and the love that it embodies creates, and calls for—in various media. I LOVED that class. It felt way more applicable to my experience with faith, and it helped me understand a little more about why Notre Dame requires students to take such courses.

And that’s the extent of my involvement with Catholicism on campus. I’ve never pushed myself past that point—just enough to challenge myself. I’ve never really felt the need to justify not going to Mass. Sure, sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on something. But I’ve come to realize I have more power over my journey in faith than I thought.

There is one more thing, and that’s how much Notre Dame and its people truly embody Christian love—the same love that is the core of my personal beliefs. I think that’s what I felt when I visited campus for the first time that drew me in, which felt this place feel good. My friends are all so full of joy and love, and they radiate it in so many ways. When they affirm you, you can feel it take root inside of you and grow to lift you. When you’re having a hard time, even if you don’t believe in the same God, these people will gather around you and pray for you and help however they can. 

At least 82 percent of this campus comes together under the same denominational belief in a God and loves you with the same fierce strength. And that was possibly the most unexpected—most pleasant—aspect of Catholicism at Notre Dame. Especially for little old, non-Catholic me.