October 5, 2017

Halloween of this year will bring with it five hundred years since Halloween 1517, the day Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Remembering the Reformation has been a major focus in chapel this year and a major topic of discussion both inside and outside classes. But not everyone is so enthusiastic about celebrating the Reformation, and for Catholic students these conversations can be a painful reminder of just how divided the church remains half a century later.

In the middle of September, a message appeared on the forum wall in which an anonymous Catholic student described feeling alienated in chapel services: “The prayer only addresses Evangelicals and Protestants. I do not feel included. The speaker mentions Catholicism (I finally feel included), but then shuts it down immediately. I do not feel included.”

Photo by McKenzie Gallagher

This experience is not unique. The students I’ve interviewed expressed similar feelings of ambivalence about their place on campus. Sophomore Lydia Parker, a vocal performance major in the Conservatory, described her sense that the Catholic Church is ignored in chapel services, saying, “I don’t feel wanted at Wheaton as a Catholic. I feel rejected as a Catholic.”

Parker, who attended a Protestant high school in Michigan before coming to Wheaton, sees no reason why there should be a contradiction in being a Catholic at a majority-Protestant school. “I, as a Catholic,” she said, “am first and foremost a Christian.” To her, Catholicism and Protestantism are “twin sisters” whose commonalities and shared family history ought to be more important than their differences. We all share a calling from God, Parker said, and “while we waste time rejecting each other we could be doing such good.” She mourns this lack of understanding even within a community she loves. “I think that the people here treat me really well as a person,” she clarified later in our conversation. “I just think that they don’t treat me very well as a Catholic.”

Parker attributed these divisions in large part to a lack of education about Catholicism among Protestant students. She expressed that while she’s not opposed to discussion of the Reformation — she described the Reformation as something even Catholics can be grateful for, as it led to “a change that desperately needed to occur in the Catholic Church in order to preserve what the Catholic Church really is” — she worried that too many Protestants perceive the church as perpetually stuck in that moment. The Church has developed since then, she said, and it grieves her to watch students fighting not their own wars, but “a war that their great-great-great-grandfather Protestant fought against his Catholic neighbor.” Senior Valerie Griffin, a biology and English double-major who was confirmed into the Catholic Church on the Easter of her junior year, agreed: “Protestants would like to assume that Catholics are exactly the same as we were in 1500, that we haven’t changed at all, and that’s just very untrue.”

Griffin is optimistic that this anniversary will create opportunities for both Catholics and Protestants at Wheaton to ask God-honoring questions about themselves and the Reformation — questions that will lead towards greater unity. Those questions, she believes, can help us understand “how we’re different and how we’re very, very similar; how our histories have divided us, where our doctrine still divides us, but how we can still work together in so many things, and how Christ truly wants us to be one.”

At the same time, Griffin worried that Protestants too often think of the Reformation as an unmixed blessing. She hopes the campus community will take this chance to consider “what things we should take as good things that came from that era, but also things that broke us. Horrible things that happened, a hundred and fifty years of war that came from that, so much death, Protestants killing Catholics, Catholics killing Protestants, everyone killing Anabaptists — so much heartbreak, so much sadness that has followed us for five hundred years.”

When I asked them what message they’d like to give Protestants at Wheaton, both students called for dialogue based in questions rather than stubbornness. “We have to be open,” Griffin said, “to asking the right questions, and open to the Holy Spirit working through us in ways towards unity, not just having conversations to shut down Catholics, [and] not just conversations to tell us that we’re not following the Gospel.” She sees cause for hope in the “Mary, Mother of God” class this semester, which is team-taught by Associate Professor of New Testament, Amy Peeler, and Associate Professor of art history, Matthew Milliner. “I love it when people ask questions about Mary.”

Parker also said she is open to answering honest questions from people who disagree with her. “I think the real problem between us is lack of education of each other, and I can remedy that! I can do that, if you ask me in a way that isn’t ‘you’re a pagan!’” For these students, conversation can only come from charitable curiosity that lays aside pre-existing assumptions. Junior Brian Salcedo, the current president of Wheaton’s Catholic Society, urges Wheaton’s Protestant population to be open to listening to Catholic students, and to resist the temptation to see them a monolith. “We all bring our own stories; none of us are exactly the same,” Salcedo said.

Photo Courtesy BiblicalHeritageExhibit.com

When Griffin mentioned being told that Catholics don’t follow the Gospel, she was referring specifically to another post on the forum wall, by sophomore Matthew Bianco (who signed his post, and asked people who disagreed to approach him directly). He titled his provocation “Why the Reformation should continue to be celebrated at Wheaton, and Rome rejected,” and argued that the Catholic Church, as an institution, has “teachings that are contrary to the nature of the Gospel” — a list in which he included Purgatory, transubstantiation and several Marian doctrines, among others. He said in an email to the Record that he stands by all of what the original post contained, and that it accomplished his goal: “I was hoping to spark conversation.”

But Parker and Griffin want conversation based in curiosity, not certainty. They don’t want to convert Protestants, and they don’t want Protestants trying to convert them. For them, the goal of conversation isn’t conversion: It’s moving past the stereotypes, towards becoming a more unified and loving body, towards acknowledging one another as siblings, towards understanding that we are all the body of Christ. Salcedo stated that the Catholic Society’s goal is to help students reach “an understanding of the whole Christian church, because we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.” As president of the society, he strives to open up spaces where students hesitant about Catholicism can learn more.

“We don’t need to take defensive or offensive stances towards each other, because we are all Christians,” Griffin said. “And even though we worship differently and hold different doctrines and probably see God a little bit differently, in talking about it we can all grow closer to God, and we can understand Christians past, present and future better.”