Perhaps one of the greatest things about the Catholic Church is its universality – that Church teaching and the celebration of the sacraments does not change from culture to culture. This unique facet of the Catholic Church allows for one to be at home wherever you may travel. While it is true that one can pray anywhere, the physical presence of Jesus through the Eucharist is something that Catholics always have access to, even in cultures in which they are not familiar.
This past week I was lucky enough to spend my spring break in Switzerland conducting research and visiting the country for the first time. Switzerland is a very interesting country because its culture is highly influenced by its neighboring countries, Germany, France and Italy. In fact, the culture within Switzerland changes drastically from one part of the country to the other depending on which bordering country is closest.
The history of Switzerland is closely tied up with the history of Catholics and Protestants’, especially as the home of John Calvin. With such a rich history, Switzerland is full of majestic sacred architecture, of both Catholic and Protestant denominations, and touring Switzerland includes viewing countless churches and basilicas. Perhaps one of the most striking realizations of this trip was the ease in which one is able to immediately tell whether a church is Catholic or Protestant or another denomination. Upon entering a church, it is so easy to tell whether Christ is present in the Eucharist there or not, easily ruling out if the church is Catholic or not. I’ve heard other friends and family members describe to me this feeling, that walking into a church where the Eucharist is not celebrated is not the same as walking into a Catholic Church and I had a hard time believing them until this trip.
This immediate understanding of the presence of the Eucharist greatly attributes to the universality of the Catholic Church. Being in a foreign country or experiencing a new culture is always an exciting adventure but it can get overwhelming at times and having that opportunity to find a church and feel at home is one of the greatest reliefs of being Catholic.
While in Switzerland, Elizabeth, my fellow travel companion, and I decided to go to one of the great churches we had visited earlier for Sunday mass. We were excited to go to an English mass after dealing with language barriers for a couple days. Unfortunately we misread the schedule and ended up at a German mass much to our confusion. Although we were unable to understand the readings and the homily was completely lost on us, there was a beauty in being able to celebrate the Eucharist in a form in which we were familiar even though the language was foreign. We may not have learned the lesson the priest was promulgating from the pulpit through his homily, but we were able to celebrate the Eucharist in a community that was truly one, universal and apostolic.
As we traveled throughout Switzerland, unable to read any of the signs and frequently having to ask people if they spoke English, I realized that this is what it must be for children before they are able to read; unaware of their surroundings beyond what they are able to perceive for themselves or what an adult may tell them. In many aspects we were forced to have the faith of children, both a disconcerting and humbling experience. Similarly, while celebrating mass, we were asked to believe without fully understand the words, to have the faith of a child and believe. The experience was very rewarding and one which I can’t wait to repeat in future travels!