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Finding a Faith Community in a Secular Country

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If you’re like me, you spend an awful lot of time worrying about the state of your immortal soul. And as a first-generation college student—at that, one whose parents had never left the country—it was a source of some anxiety for me, whether I’d be able to practice my religion to a sufficiently neurotic extent thousands of miles from the Latin-Mass-only-but-still-not-sedevacantist parish I usually like to attend. “Will I find a Mass within walking distance? Will this predominantly secular institution allow me the time and consideration to fulfill my religious obligations? And will the Pusey crowd bully me if they catch me muttering peasant devotions during my walks down St. Giles’?” All this, and—I’ll admit it!—more ran through my head in the lead-up to my arrival.

After I arrived in Oxford, though, my worries were quickly allayed. All within walking distance, I found Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Oratorians, offering all sorts of fabulous high liturgy. And the buildings are all so old! What more could you want?

My assumption was that England’s famous starched secularism would be somewhat of a hamper on my practice. But this simply wasn’t true. And I think this owes to what John Henry Cardinal Newman (who preached and wrote at Oxford’s own Oratorian Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga) archly referred to as a “deep[ness] in history.” Walking through an old city that was the intellectual locus of so much ideological conflict, whose architecture has been around for so long, and which has produced so many significant historical figures in religion, philosophy, and letters (to say nothing of the sciences), you really do get a sense of the fluidity of time, even in a world where the current status quo seems so firmly enshrined. There were tremendous struggles between ideas and philosophical movements here, and persecutions, and great civic ceremonies from times when the values and worldviews of the locals would probably be unrecognizable to the people here now. There is, then, a certain deep historical consciousness you have to try awfully hard to avoid in a city like Oxford, and one that I think is very edifying, even as I walk and non-committally glance around while saying chaplets.

The reason I mention this is because I don’t think it’s exclusive to the place in which I’m studying—nor is it something I’d only access if I were Catholic, and annoyed that we had all our best churches here stolen. But as an American—and maybe, more broadly, as a Westerner—it’s very easy to fall for the idea that history has “ended,” as everything gradually clicks into commercial and postmodern place. I know the fairly petit-bourgeois concerns I deal with every day are shaped almost entirely by contemporary modes of living, and that experience isn’t—can’t be!—universal; but studying abroad in a place with rich history has helped me concretize that. I think this particular sense of consciousness is valuable, and my (very brief) time here so far has demonstrated that you don’t even need to leave the West to experience it. And while on one level I’m certainly pleased that I can have a very young hyper-orthodox Oratorian whisper the Roman Canon in Tridentine original if I manage to wake up at 6:45am on Sundays, it’s also an unexpected boon to find that, as I move around areas that are different from my home country—founded on different principles and far earlier, where vestiges of that physical, material past still remain—it’s easier to look beyond contemporary ideology.

For me, this means a reification of my religious beliefs, and more pleasure at being able to participate in a lively faith community abroad. But even for the less faith inclined, the presence of all this old material is fabulous for engaging more critically with our current milieu. And I think that, more than any simple opportunity for advanced study or travel, can be the most valuable thing that studying abroad imparts.

Zachary Deming is a Literature major at Hamilton College and studied abroad with IFSA at St. Edmund Hall, University of Oxford in Oxford, England in Spring 2019. He is a First Generation Scholar for IFSA’s First Generation College Scholarship program.