Curious and amused, the students in Blanchard 339 on Jan. 30 regarded assistant professor of art history professor, Matthew Milliner, as he briefly opened the second annual Catholic panel sitting on a wooden baby enclosure he used to represent a volleyball net.
Last year, there was much curiosity as to whether or not Wheaton College would approve the creation of the Catholic Society of St. John Paul II. As the society’s advisor, Milliner noted that were they to reject the appeal, it would have likely spiked a hurtful blow across the proverbial volleyball net and created hostility between Protestant and Catholic students. However, the school welcomed the club, allowing both sides of the fence to coexist despite the unavoidable tensions and awkwardness surrounding Catholic discourse at a Protestant school.
Since then, the Catholic Society has hosted a few events for the campus community, one of which is a student-based panel of Catholic Wheaton students. This year, the Catholic Society and Church Unity Club collaborated to create the second annual student panel: “Wheaton College through the lens of a Catholic.”
President of the Catholic Society sophomore Prisca Tuyishime, described the challenges of leading a small and exceedingly unknown student population of Catholics. Although Wheaton College inquires as to what denomination or religion its students claim, Tuyishime explained that “they don’t disclose that information because of privacy, which I respect.”
However, she described the difficulty of trying to gauge how many Catholic students there are, although the number is expected to be low. The minimal presence Catholic students have on campus makes it easy for their experience to be overlooked and unengaged. Tuyishime shared, “I feel like I am addressing an audience that I don’t know is listening.”
In an effort to engage the wider campus community, several Catholic students initiated the Catholic Society last year. In continuation of the club’s goals to promote conversation between the Protestant and Catholic community, four members of the Catholic Society cabinet faced several rows of their Protestant peers to share their experiences and answer questions on their Catholic experience at Wheaton College.
Most students described a sense of confusion and isolation, as they reflected on taking Bible and about theology classes and having conversations about their Catholic faith. Many of their Protestant peers confronted them with questions like “why they were Catholic” and what the meanings are behind various traditions.
One Catholic student shared that after coming from a very concentrated Catholic neighborhood and community, she found it challenging to explain in detail what was second-nature to her. Another student described the mental and emotional upheaval when she found herself agreeing with some Protestant viewpoints more than Catholic ones. Many of these students wrestled with the charged question of whether they were still Catholics. Despite the challenges however, all of the panelists described the value of such experiences at a Protestant institution in challenging, strengthening and even affirming their Catholic faith.
The students in the audience began to ask questions: what experiences led them to affirming their Catholic faith? How could Protestants become better Christians? What were their perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of Catholicism and Protestantism? What could be done to improve interchange between its divisions? Surprised and appreciative of the insightful questions, the panelists enlivened the discussion with their responses. There were several controversial topics discussed such as confirmation classes and praying to saints, but a silent sense of safety and respect allowed discussion to flow freely.
The audience listened attentively and was challenged by one student who shared that while she has learned much from her Protestant brothers and sisters, she and other Catholic students have much to offer as well. As the panel described its appreciation of Catholicism in terms of its emphasis on church unity, the reverence of worship, the tradition and history of the faith. The audience was fixated on every word, nodding in agreement.
At the end, everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, bowed their heads and joined Milliner in repenting of disunity in the church and imploring God’s reconciliation. The Church Unity Club, in its endeavor to develop ecumenical dialogue and engagement on campus, announced several more events geared towards Catholicism in the upcoming semester.
More than simply giving voice to the Catholic experience at Wheaton College, the panel shed light on the personal benefit of learning from the Catholic brothers and sisters on campus as they have done with their Protestant brothers and sisters.