Students come to the 10 p.m. mass at St. Thomas More Chapel dressed in jeans and skirts, polos and blazers, and squeeze in next to each other as close to the front of the chapel as possible. The stained glass windows in the chapel are illuminated by streetlights, and despite the bookbags tucked under the pews, the chapel is tranquil in a way other Yale environments rarely are. Mass ends with the lyrics, “No more dying, we are going to see the Lord,” and some people dash off quickly — with their backpacks. But the rest of the students pile into the priest’s residence to socialize, talking about that evening’s service and that week’s work over plates of doughnuts and pints of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
“The 10 p.m. mass is what we call the ‘Last Chance Mass,'” said the Catholic chaplain at Yale, the Rev. Robert Beloin, a priest at St. Thomas More who is known as Father Bob to the students who frequently stop by his home to talk with him.
But the crowded Sunday mass did not always resemble a Manhattan subway car at evening rush hour, and expressions of faith were not always so welcomed at Yale, Beloin said. As recently as 10 years ago, he said, Yale was a “tougher” place in which to be Catholic.
“I had a student that would come to mass with his books every Sunday,” Beloin said. “I eventually asked him why he brought his books every time, and he said it was because he told his roommates that he was going to the library. Otherwise, they would laugh at him if he would have told them he was going to mass.”
“This just doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.
Instead, since Beloin arrived at Yale in 1993, the growth in participation in Catholic activities has increased dramatically. In 1993, Sunday mass, which was held only in the mornings, was half full. Since then, however, Beloin has added 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. services. There are approximately 600 undergraduate students registered as Catholic with St. Thomas More, and Beloin said he estimates approximately 20 to 25 percent of the campus is Catholic.
It’s not just Yale’s Catholic community that has seen such growth. Sang Yun ’93, a staff member with the group Yale Students for Christ, said Yale has been experiencing a sea change over the past 10 years in terms of how encouraging the campus is of religious curiosity. When Yun was a student, YSC had membership of only about 15 students, he said, while now “there are easily over 100 involved.”
At a time when universities are often criticized for being far more liberal and secular than the rest of America, this trend at Yale is perhaps surprising. And what may be even more surprising is that many of the students involved in Christian groups on campus report that they have become stronger Christians since coming to New Haven, although Christianity may be more marginalized at Yale than it was in their homes.
The trend that Beloin and Yun speak of cannot therefore be attributed solely to an increased sense of religiosity in America at large. So, what is it about Yale’s present community that lends itself to fostering an interest in campus religious activities?
Emily Mimnaugh ’07, from the small town of Elk Grove, Calif., is one student whose sense of religious identity has grown at Yale.
Growing up, Mimnaugh lived in a community she describes as “Pleasantville.” It was run largely by Baptists and Mormons, caffeine was anathema, and religious faith was taken as a given. And yet, Mimnaugh says that being at Yale — where no one would think of looking askance at a Pepsi, even if spiked with rum — has strengthened her devotion to her Catholic beliefs.
The challenge of living in a largely secular environment, Mimnaugh said, has forced her to critically evaluate her commitment to her faith, and she has found herself a stronger Catholic than she was before, even though her hometown was perhaps more conducive to living a life guided by one’s faith.
“A lot of times I feel like when you’re at a place like Yale, and if you’re not surrounded by people who think the same way you do, it puts a lot more of the pressure on you to make sure that you’re living the way that you’re wanting to be living,” Mimnaugh said.
But even though Mimnaugh may not be “surrounded” by people who share her religious beliefs, many students who, like her, found religion while at Yale attribute their growth to the fellowships they found in on-campus religious groups and churches.
During one such bible study group, run for Morse and Ezra Stiles freshmen by Yale Students for Christ, the night’s readings and discussion center around the concept of fellowship, which is perhaps appropriate in light of how incredibly trusting and supportive the attendees are of one another. When Patricia Moon ’05 directs the group’s attention to the idea of fellowship, she begins by asking them to discuss what they first think of when they think of fellowship.
“I think of YSC,” Jordan Garner ’08 said, earning nods from the rest of the room.
A handout passed around by Moon at the beginning of the evening defined fellowship as “our essential interdependence on one another in addition to our utter dependence on God.” Yoon describes the idea of fellowship as a sort of triangle, where God is the top point and individuals are the two bottom points: Through God, the people share a connection they may or may not have without God’s presence.
“Through God we go beyond the exterior and — share a commonness that’s very powerful and because of that common bond nothing else matters,” Yoon said.
To join in fellowship with someone, then, is to build a community of believers, a community whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Yoon, laughing, speculates as to what sort of “chaos” would happen if the members of YSC were to hang out without the mediation of a shared belief in God.
“It’s definitely fellowship, just having people who can hold you accountable but at the same time won’t judge you,” Park said when asked about why he participates in YSC. “In the Bible it says it’s important to find support in other strong Christians — and [YSC] just helps me to plug into my Christian brothers and sisters.”
The center of Christian life at Yale is hard to pin down — perhaps because of the myriad of Bible study groups and weekend retreats, in addition to the variety of New Haven churches which serve also the Yale community. For Protestant undergraduates, the Christian community revolves around local churches, such as the Yale Lutheran House and Yale Episcopal Church, and what the Chaplain’s Office lists as “para-church” organizations, which are not official churches, but rather groups of students who, under the guidance of a few adult staff members, conduct weekly prayer sessions, large-group meetings, bible studies and social events. Such “para-church” organizations include YSC, Yale Christian Fellowship and Athletes in Action; these organizations are joined also by such groups as the Gospel Choir and Living Water, which approach religious activity though means other than traditional prayer. And for Catholic students, St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center, which recently began building a new student center, hosts masses, bible studies, lectures and other community and spiritual activities.
One of the aspects of Christian life at Yale is the sheer diversity, not just in terms of the number of groups involved, but in terms of the backgrounds of the students who eventually find themselves sitting in an Old Campus common room talking about the mysteries of the universe.
“In our fellowship we’re quite diverse overall,” said Greg Hendrickson ’04, a staff member with the Yale Christian Fellowship. “We’re about a third international — mostly Africans or Asians — maybe a third or a quarter white American, and some African-American and Latino and Asian-Americans.”
Hendrickson said there are approximately 40 students who attend YCF functions on a regular basis. Among the ranks of YCF members, he added, international students are particularly well-represented.
“More and more international students are coming from very strong Christian background, and that confuses everybody who thinks Christianity is a western religion,” he said.
In addition to the geographic diversity of its members, Hendrickson said the YCF’s membership also is quite varied in terms of students’ religious backgrounds. While most students come from Christian backgrounds “of some sort,” the degree of commitment varies widely. And while some students, he said, come to college intentionally seeking an organization to help them grow in the faith, a number of students come from not terribly religious backgrounds and join the YCF looking to try something new.
Jon Butler, the dean of the Graduate School and an expert on religious history in America, said religion is the type of thing that college students are predisposed to be curious about as one component of their overall intellectual growth.
“College students think about the future, and they think about the purpose of the future,” Butler said. “Religion is one of the ways those questions can be probed. [College] makes people think about the meaning of things. That’s the principal way the college experience encourages people to think about religion.”
For Mary Hollis ’05, the president of Choose Life at Yale and an active member of the St. Thomas More community, everything just fell in place when she got to Yale.
“I had independence of going to church whenever I want,” Hollis said. “I become a lot more serious about my faith.”
She seems to mean it. Hollis has decided to join a convent when she graduates. She admits that her chosen path is unusual even within the Catholic community, but she said her decision has been met with curiosity from most people with whom she has spoken. After all, she said, everyone at Yale understands the desire to do something big, and it just so happens that she believes “being a nun is big and important.”
Speaking with others about her choice has “opened up doors for me to discuss the important place that faith has in my life,” Hollis said.
And although faith places an unusually large role in Hollis’ life, she said that there are “a lot” of students currently active in the Catholic community on campus.
To explain this resurgence of religion on campus, Beloin refers to something he calls “internal questioning,” a questioning and searching for the adult soul that leads students to believe there just might be more to life than grades. More and more students, he said, are open to the possibilities of such “internal questioning” and are therefore more willing to pursue a religious life, a view that coincides with Butler’s assessment that college students often think about the purpose of their futures.
To satisfy this growing demand for God on campus from Catholic students, St. Thomas More is growing.
“Oh, are we expanding,” Beloin said, grinning.
Adjacent to St. Thomas More’s current site on Park Street, there is currently a giant pit of dirt that will morph into a new 3,000-square-foot student center and will feature offices, a lecture hall, a dining hall, a library, a student lounge and a glass courtyard. “The building will even have working fireplaces,” Beloin said. St. Thomas More is conducting a $50 million capital campaign to fund the construction and upkeep of the center; in addition, the church has received a $25 million donation from one donor to ensure that the student center will be of service to Yale’s Catholic community.
Although the new Thomas E. Golden Jr. Catholic Center is aimed at supporting Yale’s Catholic community, Beloin said he has also observed a transformation with respect to the general Yale community’s attitude towards religious faith.
“I suspect that 10 years ago there was a general dismissal of religion with a sentiment of, ‘If you’re really smart, you outgrow the need for God,'” Beloin said. Now, he added, students of all faiths seem to view religious faith as something valid and worthwhile in itself.
Yun, who works with YSC, agreed that Yale has been experiencing a change within the past 10 years in terms of how encouraging the campus is of religious curiosity.
“The overall slant was much more dismissive or disdaining of religion,” Yun said. “Before, the people who were involved in Christian groups for the most part were people who were pretty set on being a part of a Christian organization.”
Now, he said, the YSC, like Hendrickson’s YCF, is more accessible to people who are “just casually interested” in Christianity.
Yun has two explanations for this change. First, in addition to trying “to make Christ comprehensible” to students with minimal exposure to Christian teachings, Yun said groups such as YSC have themselves been trying to “seed the atmosphere” so that religion is seen as just another component of campus life both for religious and unreligious students.
“There’s a growth in numbers, but I think also growth in commitment to try to be a normal part of campus life,” Yun said. “There is a marked difference in terms of presence on campus — as well as interaction with the campus.”
Second, Yun said the intellectual climate has become more open to accepting faith alongside reason and logic.
“There has been more of an openness on campus generally” to religious faith, Yun said. “With that kind of shift of an intellectual climate, we’ve become more open to the idea of religion in general.”
Hendrickson also suggested that culturally religion has become more intellectually and socially acceptable. And although he stressed that he has hardly ever met someone at Yale openly hostile towards Christianity or religion in general — he can think of only a single exception — he did say that he has noticed something of a spiritual renaissance on campus.
“Some people talk about modernism and postmodernism,” Hendrickson said. “One of the characteristics of modernity is that it places a high value on science and reason and technology, and that’s often taken in a secular direction — Postmodernism is giving up on some of those, and I think is more open to spiritual things in general — although hesitant to commit to spiritual beliefs.”
In this respect, therefore, the increased interest in on-campus Christian groups becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Yale Christian community: As more students identify themselves as religious, such faith becomes more commonplace on campus, and, as a result, more students feel comfortable exploring their religiosity.
Butler, however, cautioned that although such a trend is apparent in American culture, the trend needs to be examined over a long period, and Butler warned against trying to read too much into short-term gains or losses.
“First of all, the increase in religious attendance is a long-term pattern in America. It’s a misconception to think this is something that blossomed in the immediate past. [The increase] has been steady since the second World War,” he said.
Moreover, Butler said, while “there have been gains at each end of the religious spectrum,” there has been a hollowing of the spectrum’s middle. Although there are more people therefore who would consider religion to be an important part of their lives, there are also more people who simply couldn’t care less.
This cautious interpretation of recent trends jibes with Hendrickson’s observation that membership in YCF has waxed and waned over the past six years without any huge gains or crippling losses. However, he said, at least at Yale, he knows fewer and fewer “dogmatic atheists,” but he knows more people who identify as agnostic — a reflection perhaps of an increased acceptance of faith in general.
Being a Christian at Yale, however, is not as straightforward and simple as all that. Mimnaugh — far from the typical Woodstock attendee — said she sometimes feels “a little counter-cultural” because of her Catholic faith.
“What I believe in, and the intensity with which I believe it [is] just one more thing to add to Yale’s landscape of diversity,” Mimnaugh said. “You can call someone weird, but the fact is we’re all weird. Everyone that goes here has got something about them that makes them fairly unique.”
The hectic pace of Yale life can make it difficult for religious students to set aside time to focus on their faith, and the need to consciously choose to set aside such time, many students said, makes them more consciously aware of their valuable connection with God.
“I think there are definitely challenges at Yale towards being a Christian, just not the ones that everyone might think of,” Hendrickson said. “I do think where the challenge comes — are things like people have so many activities at Yale, and I think it’s easy to get lost in that and come to halfway through your college years or even graduate and wonder, ‘What was my purpose here?'”
The YSC freshman Bible study concluded with the group examining a hymn written by Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale from 1795 to 1817.
“So how would you make sense of what TD — ah, Timothy Dwight — is talking about?” Moon asks.
Moon’s slip, referring to the hymn’s author by the nickname — “TD” — applied to Dwight’s namesake residential college, appropriately enough ties together Yale’s religious heritage with the resurgence of interest in religion on campus today. Yun, who as a staff member with YSC wrote the handout and decided to include that hymn, said he is intrigued by Yale’s history.
“One of the luxuries of being able to construct Bible study for the Yale campus is we get to draw on — so much of Yale’s history,” Yun said. “It’s not that I want Yale to become what it was, but there are very deep spiritual roots at Yale.” n
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