Anyone who tells you that being religious is easy is lying to your face. Speaking as a Catholic living in the modern world, the number of people who ridicule you for your faith life alone is enough to create a serious challenge. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been teased about going to church, told I was ridiculous for refusing to attend services at a church that wasn’t of my denomination (yes, that happened), or straight-up laughed at for believing there’s something more important than getting what I want. Even people I consider friends have done these things, and I would be a fool to think that it won’t happen again.
If you think it’s any easier to be a Catholic in a Catholic country, you’re also mistaken. I’ve lived in two different countries that are considered Catholic now, and I can honestly say that attending mass and adhering to Catholic teachings was easier in the US, where religious groups tend to knit themselves into little communities. In ‘Catholic’ countries, there seems to be very little sense of community at local churches, and people seem to go to mass simply because it’s ‘what they do.’ In fact, in the last two years, I’ve experienced serious difficulty in bringing myself to go to mass.
In Poland, I had my first real taste of mass in a foreign country. My first observation was that very few people took communion, and those that did pushed their way to the front without any sense of order. It was like a flock of seagulls to a French fry – people just descended upon the priest to get their share of the Eucharist. It was so confusing for me that I didn’t even manage to take communion that day. My second observation was that the language barrier was bigger than I had thought it would be. We’re all taught in our religion classes that the mass is the same in every country – which is true, to an extent. I can figure out what’s going on during the mass in any given language, but it’s difficult to participate fully. One of the most powerful moments in the mass, for instance, is when the entire congregation stands and says the Creed together; it’s very isolating to stand there while everyone else is reciting the prayer, and you don’t know the words. For the first time in my life, I understood why people would appreciate having a Latin mass.
In Italy, attending mass was a completely different, but equally befuddling experience. Again, not very many people took communion, and those that did rushed forward with little organization. However, my main problem is that, in the church here in Villafranca, the priest periodically has to stop to shush the congregation. It’s very obvious that the majority of people are there for social purposes, not for prayer. Catholic masses are structured the way they are because for us, prayer is a communal experience. When part of the congregation is chatting about how the kids are doing during the Liturgy of the Word, it breaks down the sense of community and togetherness that is central to the mass.
Even so, I have to say that traveling in general is a truly spiritual experience, and that it has brought me closer to my Catholic faith. My wanderings have a bit of the sense of pilgrimage about them, of experiencing God through the physical world. I’ve also found that being outside your own church community makes you seriously think about what it is you’re doing when it comes to religion. It also makes you think about what you can do to fill your spiritual needs while you’re away from home.
Here are some of the things I’ve found to be helpful:
Find a church I know I’ve said that I had problems going to mass, but I was also in very small towns where there was only one or two churches to choose from (actually, in Żory, there were seven, but only two within walking distance; the others were out in the boonies). Being dismayed by how difficult it was to participate in a mass in a foreign language, I stopped going to mass for a while. I would attend mass in whatever place I traveled to for the weekend, but not in Żory. After a while, it became apparent to me that I needed to change that, and with some serious will power, I did. If I spent the weekend in Żory, I took the bus into Kraków for the day and attended mass at the Bazylika Mariacka. In Sicily, I prefer to go into Messina for mass at the Duomo, or attend the Saturday evening vigil mass. You have no idea how healthy it is for your soul to go to mass until you’ve stopped going for a while. After all, as Catholics we believe that the Eucharist is the most important aspect of our lives – the connection to Christ and our salvation through his sacrifice and renewal of the covenant.
Take a Bible Before moving abroad, I had three great big, heavy, flimsy Bibles on my bookshelf, which I never cracked open unless it was for class. Then, in Poland, I remember sitting on the couch in my apartment one Sunday afternoon, after skipping mass because I was depressed by the language barrier, and thinking, “I need a Bible.” Never had I thought that before. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I came home to get a Bible, since all the Bibles in Poland are, well, in Polish. None of the Bibles I had collecting dust on my shelf were suitable for travel, so I went down to the Catholic book store, looking for a small, lightweight version. I found exactly one sitting on the very back of the shelf in the very back of the store: it had a sturdy leather binding, was less than five inches by one inch, with a zipper to close it and keep the pages from bending. Perfect for throwing in the backpack for a weekend trip. When I got it home, I cracked it open, and found that it was an Ignatius Bible – a Catholic translation, usually used for Bible study, and which shares a name with Ignatius of Loyola. I looked down at my Loyola University t-shirt, back at the Bible, and went, “Okay, God, I get it.” Reading the Bible is a great way to deepen your understanding of your faith whether or not you’re traveling, even if it’s only one chapter per day. However, when you’re traveling, the Bible is something tangible – and of your own language – that connects you to your faith.
Bring a Rosary Trust me, I understand that most of us avoid saying the rosary after being scarred as children by the old rosary ladies, who chant the first half of the Hail Mary as if it were a dirge, or by the interminable afternoons in the church in May, during which each decade was punctuated by bad organ music and kids regularly fainted from standing for so long. Been there, done that. Bad memories notwithstanding, the rosary is, again, a tangible connection to the Catholic faith. It’s also the Catholic version of meditation. Think about it: we say that we meditate on the Mysteries of the Rosary. Trust me again when I say that there is no experience like travel to make you understand the need for meditation. Travel is stressful, it’s dirty, it’s tiring, and sometimes it’s downright lonely. And where better to go when you’re stressed, dirty, tired, and lonely than to Mom?
Accept that things will be slightly different As I said before, in theory, Catholicism is the same worldwide. Nevertheless, there are different ‘flavors’ of Catholicism. On occasion, this can be extremely frustrating, but usually it’s very beautiful. My church in Michigan used to have a wonderful priest – he passed away a few years ago, now – who was an artist, and always brought something to mass to illustrate the point of his homily. We nicknamed him the “Show-and-Tell Priest.” In Chicago, there was no Show-and-Tell Priest, but the Jesuits gave deep and extremely enlightening homilies. In Poland, Palm Sunday was celebrated with monumental, colorful constructions of palms and flowers, which decorated the churches and the rynek. In Italy, each town has a patron saint, and on their feast day, a relic is processed through the streets, food is distributed, and a high mass is offered for the townspeople. It’s going to be different from your church at home, and that’s okay. After all, faith isn’t meant to be a comfort zone.
The last, and perhaps most important, thing to remember is that your soul needs to be healthy. Just like your body and your mind, it’s vital that you keep a healthy balance for your soul (we call this cura personalis – care of the whole person). If you wouldn’t stop eating or drinking or reading or writing or learning while you travel, why would you stop praying?