When junior Emily Keller, president of the Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) at Elon University, wakes up in the morning, she first thanks Jesus for the day. Her faith is a part of her identity and she finds meaning in life through it.
“It’s making those daily, little, monotonous things meaningful,” Keller said.
According to the 2018 Spring Registrar’s Report, Keller is one of 1786 Catholic students on campus — making it the largest Christian denomination at Elon. Catholicism has been the largest religion denomination on campus since at least Spring 2007 — which is the oldest Registrar's Report on Elon's website.
However, Jan Fuller, university chaplain, said though the remaining Christian denominations are heavily divided, the 2008 non-Catholic Christian students need to be viewed as one when comparing numbers. The second largest denomination being “Christian – Other” consisting of 450 students.
“When we measure the numbers at Elon, we count Christians and then other people and Christians turn out to be about 60 percent, 30 percent of those are Catholic Christians,” Fuller said. “If you take the rest of the Christian denominations and you add them together, you get about 2000. That’s pretty close — it’s just that the list of those other denominations is very long.”
That list consists of 33 different Christian denominations represented on Elon’s campus.
“The Protestant Church is a very denominationally divided church,” Fuller said.
Unlike other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church is unified through a single spokesperson.
“Catholicism is accountable to the pope and the structure all builds its way to the pope,” Fuller said. “What binds it all together is a structure and a long tradition.”
Catholicism as a culture and community
Catholicism stretches beyond being just a religion, there is a culture behind it. One of those cultural norms being that Catholics are supposed to abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
Peter Tremblay, associate chaplain for Catholic life, adheres to this tradition.
“I love having a nice sandwich with meat in it, but there is an experience of community we are trying to build because in a lot of ways, students feel as if most identities on campus are celebrated, except authentic religious identities,” Tremblay said.
One of those students being sophomore Riley McCrossan who appreciates how CCM brings people together who share common values.
“Being on a college campus, there are obviously lifestyles that are really prevalent and not everyone will want to be involved in lifestyles such as those,” McCrossan said. “Just the hook-up culture and drinking. College can be crazy and while it’s nice to have fun, it’s also nice to be able to lean back on people.”
Though CCM allows students to get away from that aspect of college culture, it is not overly religious and places more value on the community.
“Being part of CCM is not even as much pressure to actually be very practicing Catholic, it’s just a community on campus and it’s not stereotypical of what people would put a label on,” McCrossan said. “I think it’s a really easy thing to get on board with and more people should look into it.”
Keller completely agrees.
“I love that Catholicism is a universal. It’s a beautiful religion that was founded by Jesus Christ himself and it’s something that I’ve really come to appreciate in my travels around the world," Keller said.
Catholicism may be unified under the pope, but divisions exist regardless. The Pendulum reported in 2002 that conflicting views on social issues existed within CCM regarding women’s roles in Catholicism, divorce, priest celibacy and the use of contraceptives.
Fuller said such divisions still exist, but the issues today will be different.
“In our time, issues of how we relate to the LGBTQ community will be varied, probably here at Elon as well as in all the Catholic churches,” Fuller said.
Speaking up for your faith
According to Tricia McCarthy, coordinator of faith formation, not everyone is willing to accept religion as something legitimate and worthy of their time.
“I think for our students, even though it is the majority religion on campus, it’s still very difficult to practice any religion at Elon,” McCarthy said. “Elon is, just like most of the world, very secular and very ready to offer critique of religion, so it takes a lot for students to be willing to give up an hour a week to go to Sunday mass — just as most young adults are still trying to figure out what maybe they want their career to be, they’re also still wrestling with faith and trying to figure that out,” McCarthy said.
Some students are also afraid to speak up for their faith because they aren’t sure if they want to commit to anything yet.
“College is a time of finding out who you are,” Keller said. "College life and faith are sometimes seen as polar opposites, which brings its own set of issues in form of stereotypes."
Negative stereotypes about Catholics that lead to a misunderstanding about their faith are a further struggle that believers on campus have to face.
“People are often thought of as bigots or prejudiced or out of touch or as indoctrinated into hateful ways of thinking,” Tremblay said.
To fight these untrue stereotypes, Tremblay said that the programming at Elon is aimed at building a community and creating opportunities to go deeper into understanding ones faith. The two main negative stereotypes the Catholic community struggles with are ignorance and bigotry.
“If you are going to believe, you have to be ignorant of science, you have to be ignorant of philosophy and contemporary thought. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Tremblay said. “Anyone who is devoted to religion is somehow operating out of a place of hatred for people who are different from them or live lifestyles that are different from some of the ideas and teachings we have in the church. That, as well, is completely false ... We are not a clan of haters and bigots.”
Combating these stereotypes is not a matter of proving anyone wrong and defensiveness won’t win the argument either. Instead, Tremblay has a different approach to disprove negative stereotypes.
“My hope is you begin with a smile, you continue with a warm invitation, free food and fun,” Tremblay said. “Anyone who stands up and has to proclaim loudly ‘I’m not a bigot,’ seems to already have lost the point.”
The graying church
Catholicism may be the largest Christian denomination on Elon’s campus, but it still faces struggles on a nation-wide basis. One of these is an over-aging population. According to National Geographic, 32 percent of Catholic Church members in the US were aged 50 and above in 1987. By 2014, that number rose to 50 percent. Part of the problem is that young people’s preferences are different when it comes to faith.
“They are not looking for something that’s routine, but something that’s deeply meaningful and has personal significance,” Fuller said. “All the churches are struggling with this phenomenon.”
McCarthy said mass itself is also not always appealing to young people.
“A lot of young adults will say they don’t find mass entertaining. I would argue that’s not the point of mass, but definitely one thing that students would say,” McCarthy said.
According to Keller, picturing grandparents going to church is a stereotype. The Catholic Church is not standing still and churches around the world are starting to cater to youths with a strong faith.
“Us millennials are on fire for our faith and there are communities across campuses, across the nation and across the world that do foster a really amazing, young adult ministries of Catholic kids who are living out their faith and bearing witness to their faith every day in a world that is becoming very, very secular,” Keller said. “I think that is definitely a struggle and definitely this battle that we are facing, but if you have your Catholic and you believe God will give you the strength that you need, we have no reason to not live out our faith and bear witness to it every day of our lives.”
There may be ministries catering to youths, but Fuller said the static nature of the church is still an issue.
“The church and Christian organizations all over the world I think been maintaining themselves as institutions rather than reinventing themselves for new centuries and new generations,” Fuller said.
Turnouts at CCM or Catholic events on Elon’s campus are relatively high according to Keller. Over 400 students attended the Ash Wednesday service this year. Showing a shift an increase of interest this year, which some argue can be expected to continue.
American author Phyllis Tickle argued that the Church has to have a reformation every 500 years.
“What she says is that now is the time,” Fuller said, 500 years ago, the protestant reformation took place. “The way to survive such a reformation is to be flexible and to reinvent oneself."
The geographic distribution of Catholics in the US has also changed. The concentration has shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West according to National Geographic.
Fuller believes this is mainly due to immigration. “I think they are settling there when they come from other countries, from South America, from Central America, from places in Europa or even Asia.”
However, it’s not just foreigners who permanently settle in the US bringing about these changes.
“Many of the migrant workers come from Catholic backgrounds," Fuller said. "The California churches are bursting at the seams because of migrant workers, almost all of them from Mexico.”
Figures from the Pew Research Center support Fuller’s theory, with Hispanic Catholics representing 26 percent of Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest, while making up 33 percent in the South and 44 percent in the West.
The future of Catholicism
Catholic culture has always placed a high value on education. According to Tremblay, Catholic schools existed in the US before public schools did.
“Public schools adopted the model of Catholic schools,” Tremblay said.
Prioritizing education has led to economic success.
“When you have economic success, birth rates go down,” Tremblay said.
But low birth rates aren’t keeping youths from Catholic faith.
“In the Catholic church, we do a terrible job of passing on faith to the next generation,” Tremblay said. “They were never deeply brought into the faith, I don’t think. They’re faith often came from a place of obligation — they were told you have to go to church, they were told you have to pray or there were these terrible consequences.”
These older generations made peace with that and went through these rituals.