A couple weeks ago, Boston College celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit, held annually at the beginning of the academic year. The Mass of the Holy Spirit, and the celebration of and widespread participation in Masses more generally, contributes to an atmosphere in which an entire community can come together and affirm the value of each member before God. I think this has the potential to infuse the community with a sense of togetherness that I lacked at the secular university I went to last year.
The benefits of such community-wide celebration became clear to me when I was abroad at the University of Oxford, a university replete with Christian chapels and churches, but without the faith to fill them. Students at Oxford belong to one of the dozens of constituent colleges or private halls during their studies, living in the same residence halls as other members of their colleges and sharing the same dining hall. For me and for many, it is here we find many of our friends, a product mainly of proximity and of frequent college-organized social events. Mansfield College is the home to the students in BC’s Oxford abroad program.
Of the friends I made at Mansfield, just about none were practicing Catholics, and only a few more were some other form of Christianity. Instead, most people looked on with what seemed some incomprehension, or even pity, at my weekly Mass attendance or my other visits to the university’s (Jesuit-manned) Catholic Chaplaincy.
The people I met at the Chaplaincy came from all over the university, both undergraduates and postgraduates. Most non-Catholics probably had hardly any cognizance of the Chaplaincy’s presence or activities. While the physical distance between Mansfield’s grounds and the Catholic Chaplaincy was not great, I always had the sense that I was quite far spiritually from the Mansfield community when I walked over. Mansfield prided itself on being a “progressive” college, whatever that means, and religious consciousness lacked any public presence there, at least in my own interactions.
I began thinking about this difference because at the end of the first of the three terms of the Oxford academic year, the Mansfield college choir offered a Christmas carol service. The building we used as our dining hall had in fact been built to be a chapel, and still doubled as one when weekly (but largely unattended) Evensong services were held.
I remember standing, close to the back row, with an American friend who was also a visiting student from an American Jesuit university. The chapel was full. Professors, students, dining staff, and the principal of the college were present. The choir entered from the back, walked up the aisle and took its spot in the front of the chapel, singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Looking around, I realized that this was an experience which I had not sufficiently realized I had been missing. Yes, I attended Mass at Oxford. Of course, as a Catholic, that was an essential part of my life, a context in which I asked for forgiveness and grew closer to God.
The night of the Christmas carol service, though, I could not help but notice that I had so far not experienced any real community-wide act of devotion to spiritual values. The community-wide gatherings that I had shared at Mansfield centered around the community itself—in formal dinners, dances—but had never taken on a transcendent dimension, a dimension which I think the presence of community-attended Masses at BC makes possible here.
I still remember the scene of the Evensong. We all took part in the same ritual, looking in the same direction, which I think of as the direction of God. I missed such an event, in which we all acknowledge our community is held together by a set of shared values. For the Christian, this can only be understood as the attempt at living close to and under God. For the non-religious, I think, there was an equally significant acknowledgement of values that go beyond the merely prudential.
At Mansfield, we as a community had little opportunity to acknowledge the spiritual values that bind a community together. In this context, the sort of normal anxieties over achievement, social and academic, which pervaded everyday life were not rejected as insignificant, but were placed in the collective consciousness as subordinate to a higher good.
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there was only one other well-attended community worship that took place at Mansfield during my entire year. At BC, though, I have come to appreciate the experience of seeing—even from a distance, perhaps on the opposite side of the church—people I know from academic or social contexts come together before God.
Sticking out in my mind is the other week spotting a professor I had as a sophomore at a St. Ignatius Mass with his wife. The context in which I had known him had led to me to take a very specific attitude toward him, one that was almost exclusively concerned with his role as a tester of my abilities and as the one who assigned my grade.
Seeing him at Mass, though, struck me because it suggested the existence of his spiritual life, a relationship with God, that in our interactions had never come up, that I had never considered. Here was a real evidence that this professor had human concerns, a depth of personality which the particular context in which I had known him had obscured.
The shared experience of Mass and similar practices has the potential for grounding a community in a set of values that I missed when I was abroad last year. It did not seem an adequate substitute to attend Masses disconnected from the rest of the community I inhabited.
At BC, we have the valuable opportunity to look around and watch as those we know, and those we don’t know so well, worship in the same places as us. This both humanizes these people in a special way, and makes visible the shared conviction that the most important things are not our external achievements. They are our shared attempt at reaching goodness and spiritual wholeness.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor