Religion is a uniquely polarizing subject. Few other topics cause as much unmitigated controversy. Despite its intended benevolence, religion is an oft-distorted and misconstrued concept, tainted by those who misguidedly attempt to “convert” others with their overwhelming zeal.
As the largest religion in the world, Catholicism likewise enjoys a rather uneven reputation: although it sustains billions of ardent believers, it is also the subject of intense criticism and scrutiny, much of which has proven difficult to dispel. At Boston College, the issue of religion, especially as it applies to the Catholic faith, is necessarily more prevalent than at similar secular universities, given that 70% of the student body at BC identifies as Catholic.
For BC freshman Zoe Silsby, her own relationship with Catholicism was one initially fraught with seemingly inflexible ideas that did not always correspond with her own convictions, a conundrum to which many other BC students can relate. In her article “Homecoming,” recently published in America Magazine, Silsby explores her own evolving relationship with Catholicism, and how her brief falling out with the Church helped her strengthen her faith in the long term.
Silsby, like many at BC, was raised Catholic and has attended Catholic school for her entire life, so religion has been a constant—if not dominant—facet of her life from the outset. Catholicism, a part of her that was instilled by her parents and her education, was simply a given.
Yet as is often the case, as she grew older and began to formulate her own opinions and ideas, she began to distance herself from the Church, something she attributes partially to her ultra-conservative Catholic high school. So much of religion seemed to be, as Silsby put it, “set in stone,” or “black and white,” with little room for alternative interpretation. Especially given some of her self-proclaimed divergent beliefs, it was difficult to conjure a space wherein Catholicism and more liberal ideologies could coexist peacefully.
Given this dilemma, how did Silsby return to faith—how did she “come home?”
For Silsby, her self-described “vacation” from Catholicism ended when she realized she could make her faith her own; being Catholic wasn’t about following the exact letter of the law, but about recognizing the essential values taught by the Church and modifying them to fit her own life. It meant dispelling what she referred to as “the gossip” surrounding religion. As Silsby put it, “Everyone has learned their own version of religion… and people have incorrect information all the time.” It was precisely this “incorrect information” that drove a wedge between Silsby and the Church, until she came to realize that being Catholic did not mean endorsing its every stance, but rather “figuring out what the Church actually believed and not what my friends were saying.”
The faith that Silsby found upon her return from her hiatus from the Church is one that reflects a greater maturity and depth of understanding. To mold the teachings of Catholicism into her life required Silsby to “redefine a faith for myself, and how I incorporate it in my life,” which meant culling the core values of Catholicism and applying them to her life. This also entailed a certain level of savvy in terms of learning not to take “every single [Catholic] teaching on face value.”
So what does faith mean to Silsby in her day-to-day life now? How does she make it her own, and how can BC students likewise make it their own?
For Silsby, it’s a highly individual process: “Try and tailor it to your own life… it has to be your own personal faith, because you’re going to have it your whole life.” Faith can be found in unlikely places, when one least expects it. Religion often rings of institutions and rules, of strict dictums and rigid, unflinching practices. Faith, on the other hand, is a more flexible, malleable idea: faith is not reserved solely for the context of religion; it can be applied to any number of environments and mean something different for everyone.
Amidst all of the positive lessons learned about redefining her relationship with religion, however, Silsby still has her moments of doubt—and she wouldn’t change that. She credits her questioning of Church teachings as a formative part of deepening her faith. Without that period of doubt, she wouldn’t have as much conviction in her current beliefs.
Faith is imperfect, and it’s a challenge—especially as a college student—to negotiate one’s own relationship with it. Yet as Silsby makes plainly evident, it’s not about getting everything right; it’s about making mistakes and having moments of doubt, and learning in the process. All there is to do is try to keep the faith, and keep it yours.