The nice thing about traveling is that you get to take a break from normal life and put things into perspective. This spring break, thanks to my parents, I was able to go to London and Paris. I got to meet up with Sung Ho, a friend I had lived with for the past three years but who is currently about to start his mandatory service in the South Korean army, my current roommate, Phillip, and a close friend studying abroad in Denmark, Susie.
It was nice traveling with them, and for me, seeing Sung Ho after about a year of not seeing him was really great. I wouldn’t say museums are my favorite place, but wow, some of the things in London and Paris, especially the British National Museum and the Louvre, were mind-blowingly beautiful and held ancient murals, sculptures, artifacts that I had read about in textbooks.
But if I were to narrow down my favorite place throughout the whole trip, it would be Notre Dame, the cathedral at the heart of Paris.
During the trip, Sung Ho, Phillip, Susie, and I were sipping a few beers, chasing it down with London’s famous fish and chips. We talked about a great many different topics ranging from fake accents to future careers.
Among the discussions was, as it commonly is, religion. Susie, studying abroad in Denmark, told us about the Danish Church, where, people automatically give a portion of their income to the church (although they may opt out if they wished to do so). She then asked me about my opinion on the diminishing and decreasing role of religion, specially Roman Catholicism, internationally. In my half-tipsy state, I answered that it was perhaps both good and bad. Good because excess religious fanaticism has led to the suffering of many and perhaps as a results, a few more liberal ideals will find their respective places in the Catholic Church. Bad because, I literally said, “you know why…”
But, sitting in front of Notre Dame Cathedral as I wrote this reflection, I came to realize that I didn’t really understand why. These past few months, I have felt a bit farther from my religion. Part of it has to do with my failure to keep up with important traditions due to work and school, but the more major issue has been my inability to reconcile my liberal viewpoints with those of the Catholic Church.
And so, with the few beers, my actual feelings were revealed. I didn’t necessarily feel badly about even my dwindling spiritual involvement with the Catholic Church. The only difficult part was when I went home, where my parents’ joy equaled my level of “religious-ness.”
We had visited Notre Dame on Monday, but on Tuesday, I had something pulling at me to go back. I assumed it was my Catholic guilt pulling at me for having missed mass on Sunday, so I told my friends that I wanted to go take confession at the Cathedral and I would be back by 8:30PM.
The truth was, I had no idea if there was mass, only that the Cathedral was to close to tourists at 6PM. It was 5:45 when I got to there, and I went straight to the confessional. To my surprise, there was no queue. I went in, said my confession, at which point the Father notified me that there was to be mass in the Cathedral at 6:15PM. The Cathedral is large, plus I have no French, so I went full circle around ND before arriving back at the confessional where there were 6 people waiting. Coincidence that somehow I had made it at the knick of time? I eventually found the small chapel (also in the knick of time with aid from a kindly old man) and had one of the most refreshing and reflective masses I’ve had in a while, despite understanding very little of it (it was in French).
Just enough “coincidences” happened today that something clicked inside of me. The diminishing role of religion in my life had made me a little bit more selfish, less empathetic person. This was exactly what is bad about the diminishing role of religion universally. The media and politics overwhelmingly present the church hating on gay people or fighting against reproductive rights. But they never show the Church’s role in the past millennia and now in alms giving, fighting for a living wage, helping the poor in developing countries, and working towards justice for all. With fewer religious people, and fewer people entering religious life, who will be the next Dong Ha Rhee philanthropist or the next Father John Lee of Sudan? Or even, who will give the few dollars to the homeless on the streets of NYC?
The thing is, one does not need to be religious to do any of these things, but religion has and will always be, in my opinion, THE driving force of reflecting on our respective places in the world, and giving ourselves for the benefit of others. Just looking at my friends, those that are truly religious (not the ones that claim to be, and then do not show it through their actions) whether Catholic or Muslim, tend to be wiser, more understanding, as it teaches us of the important things in life, and that there is a much greater being we should all aspire to.
There are so many different cultures on this plaza at Notre Dame, and religion ties all of them together. Religion will always have its place in the world and it’s our jobs to keep it not just alive but LIVING.