Gaining admission to a Catholic university, a student should already be aware of what will be expected or assumed. There will be people there of the Catholic tradition. There will be icons dedicated to the Catholic tradition. There will be students, faculty and staff who live and breathe their faith in their every move. Taking a theology class geared toward understanding Christianity and the Catholic faith will not be out of the ordinary either.
All of these expectations and more become a reality attending a Catholic school. Being raised Episcopalian, there was no fear or worry for me that my faith, or lack thereof, would be persecuted or misunderstood. Although, strangely enough, I have found that those who do attend Mass regularly and pray regularly are not necessarily the norm here either.
College, of course, is a time of transformation. It is a time in which thousands of students 17-22 years of age attempt to come to terms with autonomy and independence from parental guidance.
Values, beliefs and often, above all, faith comes into question. Still, at Villanova and Catholic institutions in particular, being a Christian brings strength in numbers and solidarity amidst the masses, whereas non-Christians struggle in silence or among few.
Like most of the issues I have covered in this series, we Villanovans do not overtly or deliberately force non-dominant groups into submission.
Nevertheless, being in a dominant group comes with the privilege of assumed normativity, acceptance and access. Catholics, if they so choose, have ample resources on campus to live out their faith. Whether it is on retreats or service trips, in Mass, in conversation with campus ministry interns or professors, the options are endless.
But Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist students and others lack a similar forum here and in most institutions in American society. It would be unheard of for the president of the United States, or any politician for that matter, to be a non-Christian. President Obama has faced accusations and reproach about being a Muslim due to his foreign-sounding name. In the United States, it would be legal in every way for a Muslim to be president; whether it will ever happen is another question.
But this very phenomenon is not just about politicians. It is about the narratives concerning those of non-dominant faith traditions everywhere.
Globally, Christians represent about 30 percent of all people. Muslims represent about 23 percent, Hindus 15 percent, Buddhists seven percent and the non-religious make up about 11 percent of the world population. The remaining portion represents all other faith traditions.
Christianity is indeed the dominant religion, but the United States is also supposed to be a melting pot of cultures. It rejects the idea of a Muslim or Buddhist president because it goes against the traditional thought process of most Americans. And in times of turmoil, we want to know that whoever sits in the Oval Office relies on his or her faith in their decision-making, too.
Moreover, we fail to ponder the perspectives of those other faiths. Many University students come from schools, families and communities lacking interaction with different races and ethnicities, and even more so, with people practicing different religions. Thus, we have no idea how it would feel to wear a hijab on this campus. We have no idea how it feels to lack solidarity with the University community of faith.
Junior Jay Godse is Indian and was raised in the Hindu faith. He grew up in one of the largest Indian communities in the nation in New Jersey. His high school also reflected the same demographic in which Indians and Asians were the majority over whites and blacks. Although he now falls somewhere between Hindu and atheist, he says, “I didn’t realize until coming here, a lot of people have gone to private or Catholic school, so they have only seen one type of person. My roommate freshman year went to Bishop school his entire life, and he had seen an Indian person before but he had never had a conversation with one.”
Whether or not he decides to remain an atheist, the difference between Godse and, say, a white Catholic muddling over faith is that a Catholic student questioning his or her faith does not worry that a loss of faith is a loss of culture because it is the culture.
He says, “I’m a first generation Indian-American, and if I don’t pass it on to my kids then it’s gone, it’s dead. So I’m trying to figure out more about the language and culture before it’s lost.”
A community of people of the same faith and ethnic background, however, did not surround Aminah Fawad during her upbringing. Fawad, a junior, was born in Pakistan and raised a Muslim in the United States.
Unlike Godse, she grew up in a predominantly white community and her parents made sure that she maintained her sense of faith and culture while understanding the inconveniences of being a non-Christian in the states.
Fawad says, “They made a big effort to send me to Sunday school at our local mosque, learn about Islamic history, read the Quran and associate, at least a little, with other kids from a similar background.”
Largely, Fawad feels comfortable here given the organizations she’s involved in and the confidence to be proud of the faith with which she was raised.
Still, there are things that continue to bother her, especially being viewed as the other. She says, “I saw posters and flyers for an event for World Religions Day titled ‘Who Are The Others?’ As a Muslim on campus, I do not want people to think I am part of the ‘other,’ because at the end of the day, we are all people.”
Indeed, we are all just people and the idea of college and meeting people who are different from one another is a great idea.
But at a Catholic school especially, how effectively is this idea achieved? This is a Catholic school and, being such, the community of Christians here deserves the utmost respect and understanding. But so does everyone else.
Being a part of a dominant religion and a dominant race and culture, like many of the students here, creates the perfect environment to forget about “the others.” And like Godse, the opportunity to lose sense of one’s culture is much more prevalent.