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Notre Dame Catholicism: A Protestant's story

Weston Dell, ACE 28 - Tampa


Weston is a current Notre Dame senior who will be serving as a member of ACE 28 in Tampa, Florida. The following reflection was recently published in The Observer.

I came to Notre Dame as a nondenominational Protestant. My parents raised my brothers and me in a Christian home in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Throughout my childhood, we attended Sunday services semi-regularly at a nearby nondenominational church that drew heavily on evangelical teaching. During my high school years, I became very involved in the church's youth group, participating in service and gaining a better understanding of the Gospel. My Christian faith played an important role in my life at that time, and I considered it a critical part of my identity.

As I began my time at Notre Dame, I felt very welcomed as a non-Catholic Christian. I quickly joined a Christian interdenominational group called "Iron Sharpens Iron" and met other students with similar faith backgrounds to me. At their invitation, I attended a few services at various Protestant churches within South Bend. This new experience of Christian faith felt very familiar to what I knew from home, and that gave me much comfort.

A month into my first semester, I went to my rector's office for our introductory meeting. The conversation eventually shifted to religion, and I shared with him my experience of nondenominational Christianity. In turn, he shared with me his Catholic experience and the time he spent within Jesuit religious life. Although I knew Protestant teachings well, I knew very little about the Catholic tradition and what distinguished it from my faith. This led to a very fruitful discussion, and my rector invited me to the dorm's Mass that upcoming Sunday. I hesitated to accept his invitation, but I ultimately decided to attend.

My unfamiliarity with the many motions of Mass led me to feel intimidated and isolated at that first Mass. It seemed as though I was only one who did not know the verbal and physical responses. I felt like I did not belong there. The most painful part came as I crossed my arms to receive a blessing from the presiding priest. Burning with embarrassment, tearing in the eyes, I was overcome by the ostracizing feeling of communion denial. I understood the Church's justification behind this, but it still brought me great hurt. I walked out of that chapel with anger and animosity.

I did not think that I would return after that first time, but I found myself being drawn back. Despite the intimidation and isolation, I felt as though I truly did witness Christ in ways that I did not expect. There was something special about the hymnal music and something very unique in worshipping with my fellow dorm residents. The homily seemed more nuanced, insightful and focused than the long sermons I was used to. Hugging others at the sign of peace and vocalizing prayers as an assembly afforded the Mass a very communal aspect. Although I felt out of place, I truly believed that I witnessed Christ in that first Mass. As a result, I decided to return back that following Sunday, and I continued attending for the rest of the semester.

"I will be leaving Notre Dame as a nondenominational Protestant. But, my involvement in Mass and Catholicism at large has led to immense personal growth and an enriched perspective on Christianity."

As time went on, I slowly gained a deeper appreciation for the Catholic tradition and faith. I found a great deal of common ground with my nondenominational faith, and I engaged critically in the dogmatic differences that divided the two. I found beauty in the Mass's style of worship and rich insight offered in homilies by Notre Dame's priests. I eventually made Mass attendance a priority in my weekend schedule, a tradition I continue to this day.

My decision to attend Mass as a non-Catholic Christian was a very difficult one, but I now look back on it as one of the best decisions I made in my four years at Notre Dame. I learned a great deal from the many homilies I listened to, and I truly believe that Mass participation played a role in my formation at college. It still hurts to cross my arms and not partake in communion, but I focus on the other components of Mass that give me life. I especially enjoy being able to formally participate by reading scriptures and offering prayers to the congregation, something non-Catholics are able to do. Attending Mass has played a vital role in selecting paths that I would have never considered as a freshman: studying theology as a minor, becoming a resident assistant in my hall and joining a Catholic institution after graduation (Alliance for Catholic Education).

I will be leaving Notre Dame as a nondenominational Protestant. But, my involvement in Mass and Catholicism at large has led to immense personal growth and an enriched perspective on Christianity. This has been my story of Notre Dame Catholicism as a nondenominational Protestant, and I share it out of the possibility that it may serve as a story of hope for others.

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