The life of a Catholic in Denmark: my personal midterm reflection
They say you should never bring up politics or religion. Well, I do both. I’ve talked to many Danes – fellow students, professors, bus passengers, my visiting family – about their religiosity, and I get a similar response almost every time. Either they are more “spiritual” than “religious” (we could debate for hours about what those terms actually mean), or they aren’t anything at all. I consider them atheist, agnostic, doubting, confused, indifferent. There are lots of different words to describe their beliefs, or lack thereof.
In fact, I have not met a single Dane who is religious. Not a single one. Given my expectations and research, I cannot say that my experience so far has been surprising. But given my background, it has been somewhat shocking. My greatest revelation is not about Denmark, but America. In particular, I realize I have been very isolated over the past 20 years. I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, and while studying abroad I have become surrounded, for the very first time, by people with views completely foreign to my own.
My shock may come across as a bit silly. Indeed, I am living in a foreign country, so I will obviously encounter foreign opinions. I did not gasp when my host brother could not remember the last time he went to church, or after meeting Dane after Dane who admitted they were not raised in any religious context.
But cut me some slack; for the first time, I am not in the majority. I’m part of a minority that is not just Catholic or Christian, but religious. Compared to the touted “diversity” or Georgetown, Denmark feels worlds away. Despite the diversity of the Hilltop – manifested in not only race and ethnicity, but in beliefs and ways of thinking – I still feel a strong religious presence there. I can spend hours in a classroom discussing Nietzsche’s political theory or debating the ethics of abortion, yet when I step out of class, I am greeted by the statue of John Carroll and the stone crosses on Healy Hall. I can attend Mass on Sunday in a chapel packed with eager students, where there is often standing room only. I can talk with my chaplain, sing in the church choir, and volunteer with the Knights of Columbus. It is all so accessible and familiar.
You can certainly do these things in Copenhagen – there are just harder to find and not well-attended. I have been to several different churches, although most of the parishioners are immigrants, not ethnic Danes. (Which begs a tangential question: at what point do immigrants become “Danes?” The concept of cultural integration is much more opaque here than in the States, especially concerning the growing Muslim population.)
It has been a struggle, because as a practicing Catholic, my faith has undoubtedly shaped my social network. Many of my classes, clubs, and organizations at Georgetown are filled with people who are already inclined towards religion. Prior to this semester abroad, I was very optimistic about the religiosity among young adults – and maybe foolishly so.
Copenhagen has thrown me a curveball. I did not choose who would be in my social network in Denmark. I could not choose who would be living in my kollegium in the same way that I chose to be part of the Knights of Columbus or Catholic chaplaincy at Georgetown. We are thrown together like awkward freshmen – students from public schools and private ones, religious schools and non-religious ones, different family backgrounds and cultures, various majors and interests. There is a lot of diversity, but not much religion.
My perception of the world has completely changed. Things that I have taken for granted for the past 20 years are being challenged like never before. Perhaps God does not really exist. Perhaps personal relationships are our ultimate calling. Perhaps morality can be independent of religion. And most shockingly, perhaps most people do not actually believe in God.
It is time to find some answers, if there are any. It all seems a bit overwhelming – but I think that’s the point.