The life of a Catholic in Denmark: my personal midterm reflection

Marble Church - interiorThey 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.

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Posted on March 18, 2013, in General and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Would you say there is a stigma associated with overt religiosity, or more so an attitude of indifference/disinterest?

  2. hey tyler, I think its mostly indifference. My overall impression is that the Danes are incredibly passive people – they kind of let you do your own thing, and as long as you don’t “disrupt” the status quo, they leave you alone (interesting development is the influx of Muslim immigrants, who are seen as a major status quo disruption)

  3. I spent a few months abroad in France after having gone to a Catholic college and found much the same. A little less so, because France has strong roots in Catholicism, but surprising just the same. And about my social circle, it definitely was different from being at school where everyone around me practiced their faith. All of the people my age that I met there we’re definitely the opposite of religious. But I did find that they wanted the truth, because my host family explained how they were “messed up” and that they didn’t know who God is but that maybe I could help them.

  4. I’m a prospective DIS student that stumbled upon your blog via the DIS website and was very pleasantly surprised to find your series of posts on religion. I’m also a practicing Catholic and Denmark’s secular culture has made me wonder about what it would mean to practice my faith there. So interesting to hear your perspective! I know you said you met no religious Danes, but were there any other DIS or other international students you met that were practicing Catholics or active in another faith? Did you have any friends attend Mass with you? You also said they generally have an indifferent attitude towards religiosity, but was your faith ever an issue in social situations or did you ever get negative reactions for bringing it up?
    I studied Islam (primarily in th context of the Middle East) my freshman year, and find the Muslim “issue” in Denmark really fascinating as well. Did you ever discuss it with Danes?

    • Hey Sarah, yes I did meet other DIS students who were active religiously! The English-speaking church I sometimes went to had quite a few students present (called Sakramentskirken, located on Norrebrogade 27 in Norrebro), especially around Easter time and at Ash Wednesday. (I usually attended the Ukrainian church, where I was the only DIS student). It does take some time/effort to attend services, however, so I think a lot of students who may have practiced at home may have been discouraged because of the commute. There are not many Catholic churches right in the downtown area, and usually you’ll have to hop on a bus to get to the nearest one. However, you probably won’t know that someone is Catholic/religious at DIS unless you bring it up yourself in conversation. I also knew many Jewish students at DIS, although the Jewish population of Copenhagen is pretty small.

      Faith was never an issue in social situations, as I tended to bring it up pretty gently in conversations. I’m pretty accepting of other faiths/non-faiths, and if you introduce the topic with genuine enthusiasm, people will usually respond well. I think people with no beliefs are just as fascinating as those with them, and other students were happy answering all my questions!

      Yes, Islam was often brought up, primarily in the context of my “Muslims in the West” (http://www.disabroad.org/study-abroad/semester/course-list/muslims-west/) class with DIS. Great issue, with lots to debate on both sides! Danes had mixed views on the issue, and of course some had no views at all.

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