I am a sucker for big, old-fashioned churches. Churches that are unashamedly, even struttingly beautiful. Churches in the shape of a cross — imagine! — with high, awe-inspiring, humanity-belittling ceilings, with thundering pipe organs in the choir loft, with ornate stained-glass windows that both dim and enrich the outside light as it enters, with high altars and communion rails that separate the priest from the people — I love all of it. I go to church to worship something greater than myself and to commune with God, and such a building, though built by human hands, serves as some reminder of that more-than-human magnificence. I am at home there—in place below God, yet at the pinnacle of creation.
When I first visited the Immaculata Church on the USD campus, I was delighted. Though there was a newness to the place, a spare, modern quality amid the abundant detail, so much about it was pleasing that I didn’t mind. But on a later visit, I stopped to visit the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and noticed that it was housed off to the side, in a chapel honoring, according to the plaque on the wall, Saint Gertrude. Where had she gone?
Many of the side chapels remain intact. Some, especially those devoted to the Virgin Mary, have a visited feel to them. Others have not fared so well. A prayer request book stands on the altar in the St. Clement chapel, while the plaque makes its own request: that we pray for the souls of the donors who made the chapel possible. Saint Philip’s niche is empty, and the chapel of the Holy Spirit displays a crown and scepter — a museum exhibit. A stained-glass window indicates St. Ruth, but here the plaque has been removed. Saint Agnes’s chapel houses the Infant of Prague; St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s, a Bible.
And then there is poor Saint Paul. He was the first great Christian theologian, but he had the misfortune to be placed in the back. Though the plaque remains — “In Memory of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hatch, parents of the Rev. Paul Hatch” — the altar and the wall before it are bare. The altar stone has been removed. The room has been piled with folding tables and padded movers’ blankets. The material demands of the world and all its stuff have won out.
Of course, the conversion of a chapel to a storeroom is not a sacrilege. The Church is not a building, but a mystical body made up of human members. But the encroachment of the world into this house of God does make me wonder about the state of the Church walking past the Immaculata. The following interviews are in no way intended to give a complete account of the spiritual life of USD, merely an account of three women, their own beliefs, and their impressions of San Diego’s Catholic university.
Before I get to the women, let me share the thoughts of one of the priests on campus regarding the meaning of that last term, “Catholic university.” “We went through this for years and years when we were trying to unify the school. Ultimately, the Catholicity of a school has to depend on two things, more or less balanced. One is the curriculum. What are they teaching? Do the students have to take any theology courses? Well, yeah, but are they Catholic theology courses? They have to take nine units, if I remember correctly, but they can pick nine units that aren’t even in the ballpark as far as Catholicism. They can take Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism. Most of them are not taking very many Catholic courses.
“The other way it can be Catholic is by the faculty. Namely, how many of them believe in Catholicism in a practical way — don’t just say they do, but they do. For example, those teaching theology can’t teach just any old thing.” On the point of preserving academic freedom in the face of such a mandate, “The bishops say, ‘Go ahead and have academic freedom; just don’t call it a Catholic school.’ This is a good point.”
About the sacramental life — Mass, confession, etc. — he says, “Yes, the sacramental life is an important part of the religion, and so they do have Mass every day, priests available for confession. And twice a year, we have a big common Mass where they change the schedule around, close the offices down, and let everybody go. But a good Newman club at UCSD and SDSU is doing the same thing, basically. Unless somebody is doing more than that, I don’t see how that’s going to prove that it’s a Catholic school.”
And so to the women: Lisa is a junior, brassy and upbeat. I speak with her on Valentine’s Day, and her makeup is heavy and whimsical. Her eye shadow is laced with glitter; two sequins adorn her cheek. The top of a red Saran Wrap camisole peeks out above her shirt — for the occasion. Raised Catholic, she is now a Wiccan, attracted to its devotion to nature, its belief in the law of returns and the notion that “love is the law.”
“I went to church every Sunday,” she tells me. “I was a youth-group leader. I even taught confirmation. I was way gung-ho Catholic, because my mom was really strict, and, you know, she’s Catholic. I came here, and I broke out of my shell — I’m more of a wild child, anyway. Freshman year and sophomore year, I was still kind of hanging on to Catholicism, but then I was just, like, ‘This doesn’t interest me. I get bored when I go to church.’
“You’d think going to a Catholic school would keep [me in the faith], but then, I got my freedom. And actually, taking these classes like Belief and Unbelief — it told us all the alternatives to Catholicism and the arguments against it. The classes got me thinking and turned me kind of against it. Now I’m a pagan.”
The classes she mentions were part of her theology requirements. She took “some course on Christianity” and tried to get into Sex and Cults in America, but it was already overfull. What she remembers well was a course called Belief and Unbelief. “In Belief and Unbelief, we talked about a lot of different philosophers — I think that was where we did some Freud. It’s a disturbing class. [The professor] tells you in the beginning, ‘This is a class where, if you’re Catholic, you can’t get offended by the stuff you’re going to learn in here.’
“A lot of people are, like, ‘Whoa,’ because you read this stuff and it makes so much sense, too. We haven’t ever really been exposed to it in depth before. When you’re brought up Catholic, that’s all you know, because that’s all you’re taught. But the older you get, the more you can make your own choices by learning stuff like that.”
“I think a lot of it was, I saw how religion was developed more [to fulfill] a social need for people. People needed it for community— it brought people together back in the day. Then, if you notice how it changed over the years and became more demanding, more strict, it almost seems like it’s just a way to rule people, keep them in check.”
Once religion in general was teetering, the peculiar practices of the Catholic Church began to topple. “A lot of it seemed ridiculous to me, like confessing your sins to a priest. This guy was just as human as the rest of us. Personally, I thought, ‘They just get a kick out of it.’ I remember I got arrested for shoplifting back when I was, like, 15, and my mom made me go to confession. I went and told the priest, and he started laughing. I was, like, ‘Oh my God. This is so stupid. I’m never confessing again. It’s just dumb; it’s just weird.’ And the Pope — they’re making this Pope this guy who’s, like, soooo great”
Further, “I don’t agree with their ideas of what sin is. I was going to wait till I was married to have sex pretty much all through high school — ‘It’s special, dah, dah, dah.’ I agreed with it then, but I think it was just because of the institutions I was in. But then I met more and more people who were, like, ‘You’re going to wait till you’re married to have sex?’ I was one of the few people that kept it in high school, but then I realized, ‘Oh, that’s silly.’ Also, I fell in love freshman year — my first love. I did it and, afterwards, I didn’t feel guilty. It was just natural. And think about this: what if the sex is really bad with the person you marry?”
Is there a campus attitude about sex? “Everybody has sex here. A lot of the teachers are really cool. They’ll talk openly about it. They know you’re doing it. They’ll talk about lots of things. I’ve had teachers talk about smoking pot. It’s a wet campus, too. So, just because it’s Catholic, it’s not, like, super strict.”
How exactly is it Catholic? “There are things like intervisitation hours. Guys have to be out of the girls’ rooms by midnight on weekdays and by 2:00 a.m. on weekends. And they tell you [it’s Catholic] when you come in. I think they just want you to know that it’s a Catholic denomination. But they don’t make it seem like you can only go here if you’re Catholic. They say, ‘Not everyone is Catholic, and you can be whatever.’
“I think they’re doing a good job, because they give you the option. They always have signs up on Maher Hall telling you if there’s going to be a Mass, or your teachers will tell you about it. You always have the option.” As for the students, “Most people are more open-minded at college. They won’t patronize you if they know you’re something else [with regard to religion]. If you’re not Catholic, people are, like, ‘So what?’ ” Nobody has tried to draw her back into the Church.
Kara is a sophomore. She is quieter and speaks more deliberately than Lisa, sometimes measuring what she says as she says it. She does not come from a religious background and is here “because I wanted to learn about religion. It’s easier to talk to people when you understand their beliefs and stuff. Now, I’ve taken a world-religions class and a scripture class, and I feel so much more knowledgeable. We went and got our nails done the other day, and we were talking to the guy about Buddhism, and I felt like I could speak to him about it” As for the school’s Catholicity, “It’s not totally pushed on you, and I like that. It makes a really good, happy environment. I like just the amount of Catholicism that is on this campus. I choose to go to church when I want to, because I like it. And you can have those kinds of discussions [about faith] if you want, but I’ve never felt pressure to become a Catholic.”
Occasionally, she does have those discussions, though little has come of them. “My roommate is a diehard Catholic, and she gets all ticked off, because, like, I didn’t know that you had to be part of the Church to take the bread and wine, which I always did. She practically had a heart attack. Then I’m, like, ‘Oh, no, now I need to go confess,’ and she said, ‘You can’t do that either!’ And I’m, like, ‘I’d go into the Catholic Church if I met a Catholic guy and that was the only way that he’d marry me.’ I’d be, like, ‘Okay, I’ll be Catholic.’ And she’s, like, ‘How can you say that? You have to really feel it!’ ” She had a similar experience with her boyfriend. “I dated a guy who was, like, diehard Catholic, and it really sucked because he was just, like, so not even open to my beliefs. He could count the number of days he missed church on his hands. He sort of dragged me to church, and I liked it, I went a few times, but it was sort of, like, ‘I have to go, and you have to go, too.’ I was just, ‘All right, but can I bring my books to study?’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, that’s horrible! Oh, my God, no!’
“It was sort of weird. He wanted to wait until he was married to have sex, but he would push the limit so much. It’s sort of, like, isn’t that a sin in itself? You know, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to wait until I’m married to have sex, but let’s totally get it on, but not quite.’ To me, that was just as bad as if you... I just felt like people try to push the limits as much as they can without going overboard. But if you’re Catholic and religious, you shouldn’t be doing that, period. I broke up with him because I thought it was weird.”
Though he was weird, she still enjoys attending Mass. “It’s really cool. The guy’s not boring; it’s like he really ties things into college people’s lives. I take it symbolically. I like what they have to say. It makes me feel good after I go there and leave, because they talk about things that are good, general good rules of living. Like learning to forgive. I like to read the Bible, and I’m interested in taking it symbolically, but I don’t take it really literally.” Mass, however, does provide Kara another opportunity for questioning her peers’ notion of Catholic living. “I look around when I go to Mass, and I’m, like, ‘I know what you do; I know what you do...’ ”
Whatever the sins of her boyfriend and her classmates, and regardless of the effect created by the everyday presence of priests and nuns (“When you’re passing them, you’re embarrassed if you look promiscuous or something”), she likes the atmosphere. “A lot of the workers go to church here—most of the employees, the gardeners. They have this really killer, totally cool celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe. They have dancers, and they do the whole ceremony in Spanish, and its really cool And since it’s a religious school, you’re allowed to speak about [religion]. There’s crosses in the classrooms and stuff, whereas at State, that’s not allowed, and you can’t really talk about God. I really like that we can sit in class and talk about our belief or unbelief.”
Kelly, who preferred not to give her real name, speaks in solemn tones that sometimes melt into bald emotion — she is serious about what she says. Right away, she tell me she is “very religious. I just got confirmed here last year. I go to Church every Sunday. I pray every night. I think the Catholic life here at the school is a good one. I think there’s a lot of people to help others to understand it. I think the campus ministry part of the school is awesome; the confirmation program was awesome. I think the church services at 7:00 and 9:00 o’clock [on Sunday nights] in Founders’ Chapel are amazing — they are so inviting.” That inviting quality is crucial. “When I was a freshman here, I turned to alcohol — I felt I was so lost. Then I started going to church, and now, yeah, I still go out and drink, but it’s not what it was for me freshman year. I don’t drink to get drunk, to drown my sorrows. I just think [the church is] a place where anyone can always feel welcome. The Church has always been someplace where I feel I belong. No matter what kind of day I have, I can always walk in, and I belong. There’s always smiling faces, no matter what happened the night before. Everybody always makes up in church, and it’s fine after that.
“When I go home, I don’t go to church with my parents. I will go to a different church. I say, ‘I’m going to church at school. I don’t have to go here. This isn’t my church anymore.’ Here, this is my community, this is my church. Church to me is my community and the people I am praying with; it’s not the structure.”
She disagrees with Lisa’s claim that everybody has sex — or at least with the claim that people sleep around—in part because of that feeling of community. But she doesn’t go so far as to say they abstain for religious reasons. She does grant that, with regard to partying, “A lot of people go crazy freshman year, and then everybody calms down. Girls that have never drank, girls that have always had a curfew, have always had to lie to their parents when they’ve gone out with guys.
“There are a lot of people who come to this school, and their parents think it’s a good, upstanding school — and it is, it really is—but it’s college, you know? Due to the fact that it’s a Catholic school, people feel safer sending their kids to it, but once they send their kids, they’re free. They have to make decisions for themselves.” She and several high school classmates did “burst” upon their arrival, but they “got it all out freshman year. We’re fine, and we’re back in our faith.”
Indeed, Kelly believes her faith to be stronger than it was when she arrived. Confirmation, a step she is proud to have taken on her own, was part of that strengthening. “One of my closest friends died here last year, and I didn’t have a lot of faith. I felt like it was all taken away from me.” But Mike McIntyre, who works with campus ministry and served as her confirmation counselor, came to her aid. “He would ask me questions about my life, how I think I saw God in my life. And there would be little things in which I would see God. Slowly but surely, I realized that that person died for a reason, and that was really hard for me to accept.... If I had anything I needed to talk to him about, I could always go and his doors were open. He really put it in perspective.”
Kelly found Mike to be “an amazing individual. He knows me, and he’s been there for me, and he knows how I live in my faith and that everybody does it differently. I think that’s the biggest part about this school, is that it’s okay and it’s accepted that everybody does it differently.... You can’t put a name on a school like this, because everybody is different.
“It’s one of those things where everybody has their own belief. Granted, the Catholic teaching has one belief, but at the same time, there are others spawned off of that. Catholics aren’t Nazis. There are all different types of Catholics. For example, I am completely, completely 100 percent pro-choice. I’m not saying someone should go out and have an abortion six times, but I’m saying that choice should be theirs. I am for euthanasia. The Catholic Church thinks those things are wrong.”
But if you part ways with the Church on these matters, how are you still Catholic? “I’ve always been taught all my life that to be true to yourself, to be true to whoever your God is, to be true, I’d say, in your relations with your immediate family and your good friends, [is to be] true to your faith and your religion. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Ten Commandments, the set of beatitudes. Granted, that goes along with it, but those things were written so long ago. And there are different ways of taking the Bible — literally or nonliterally. I think the school doesn’t take it literally, which means to me that they take it seriously, but at the same time, not word-for-word. It can’t be word-for-word, because it was written so long ago.”
To Kelly, the essence of Catholicism is “believing in myself, believing in where I’m from, and believing that there’s someone else out there who’s helping me get through everything, who’s watching my back.”
In what almost sounds like a planned conclusion, she adds, “I think the Catholic faith is becoming more of a choice for people and less of a tradition that you have to do. I think that’s the biggest part about it, and I think that’s how it is at this school, and I think that’s why this school does flourish in the Catholic religion.”