I used to be pretty close to falling into the “unaffiliated” category myself. I grew up Catholic, and though I never stopped going to church, I questioned my Catholic identity and considered myself more of a “pluralist” during my high school years. Having lost an emotional connection to my Catholic background, and struggling to understand the person of Jesus, I turned to the Bhagavad Gita and the mystical poetry of Rumi and wondered if another religion, or simply a mix of things, might be better suited to meet my spiritual cravings.
Upon starting college, I became active in the Muslim community at Georgetown, thanks to my good friend, Wardah. I joined the Muslim Students Association board and went on their off-campus retreat, where I was struck by the Muslim students’ commitment to prayer and strong sense of community. I realized I wanted those things in my own spiritual life and began to look for them in my own Catholic tradition. I signed up for Catholic retreats intent on improving my prayer life, and I joined a Catholic faith-sharing group that allowed me to reflect on scripture with other Catholics.
Many people might have predicted that my experience of interreligious dialogue would have left me destined to end up in Pew’s “unaffiliated” category. Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism. My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community.
I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic.
Rather than pulling students into a situation in which they’d be likely to check the “unaffiliated” box, Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit environment is a unique one, giving students the support to thoughtfully explore and ultimately make their own decisions about their faith life. The university recognizes that dialogue and exploration do not often yield to students abandoning the tradition of their birth and choosing the label of “unaffiliated.” Rather, Georgetown understands that many students like myself have grown more rooted in their childhood faith because they have been given the room to explore.
Some of these re-committed students are members of the Muslim and Catholic communities that I’ve come to know so well. In just the past couple of years, these two communities have seen dramatic growth in participation at their nightly services on campus—10:00 p.m. Mass and 10:00 p.m. Isha prayers. Record numbers of Catholic and Muslim students show up every night. Even I go. It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity.
When participating in Mass, I often think of my Muslim friends in the Islamic prayer room next door. The chapel and the musallah share a wall, and sometimes I can hear the call to prayer in Arabic echo between the rooms. It reminds me how much the Muslim community has done to strengthen my Catholic identity. And it makes me grateful that I now feel confident in checking the “Catholic” box.