Abundant light streams through the windows of the chapel on a sunny September Sunday, mingling with the flicker of candlelight and the lilt of liturgy. A small group of congregants, heads bowed in prayer, kneel and prepare for the communion they are about to receive.
A priest, enrobed with heavy garments and authority, stands behind an altar draped with a white cloth. Atop the cloth sit a crucifix and candlesticks. Music wafts through the chapel, worshipful and warm.
All of these elements characterizes a traditional Roman Catholic Mass. But the location is anything but traditional.
Welcome to the new Belmont, where Mass is held every Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Wedgewood Academic Center Chapel, and where Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination among last year’s freshman class.
According to statistics released by the office of assessment and institutional research, 17.5 percent of the class of 2018 identified as Roman Catholic. This amounts, roughly, to 244 students out of the 1,392 who enrolled.
In comparison, the number of students who identified as Baptist came in a close second with 212 students.
It’s a small gap, to be sure, but it carries big implications.
In 2007, Belmont cut ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and eschewed its Baptist identity. Eight years later, what was once a sleepy Baptist college is now a bustling non-denominational Christian university, with a robust Catholic community to match.
The Belmont Catholic Community, an on-campus Bible study for Catholic students, boasts around 30 regular members, while just four years ago it didn’t even exist.
The group hosted a Roman Rush informational session—a lighthearted parody of Greek life rush—earlier this year and has even cultivated quite the presence in campus intramurals.
“We’re really blessed with great students,” said BCC president Katie Ward. “Really, those people in our community, they’re the ones making the impact.”
Ward views the influx of Catholic students as a means to encourage cooperation between denominations and to start a dialogue about the misunderstandings facing Catholicism, she said.
“We can have honest dialogues and form friendships,” she said. “People don’t try to be mean; they just don’t know.”
The success Belmont has enjoyed since its split with the TBC may at first appear to be, in the grand scheme of things, an isolated incident, a result of being in the right non-denomination at the right time.
Vice President of Spiritual Development Todd Lake sees it another way.
Senior leadership’s decision to affiliate Belmont with Christianity generally, rather than any denomination specifically, falls squarely within a national religious trend known as post-denominationalism, he said.
“I think Christian college students no longer identify primarily as Lutheran or Methodist or Baptist,” he said. “Instead they identify first and foremost as Christians, and only then as a particular flavor of Christian.”
To put it another way, post-denominationalism partially explains why non-denominational churches like Ethos or Cross Point enjoy consistent collegiate crowds, while churches with clear-cut denominations may struggle to fill the pews every Sunday.
It’s a crisis not of trendier worship or tastier coffee, but of identity, he said.
In a time when church attendance is falling, “the unity in Christ is what matters,” as opposed to affiliating strongly with a certain sector. Past generations, broadly, were more prone to proclaim a denomination. But not this generation, he said.
While some Protestant churches—particularly evangelical or charismatic churches—have responded to this trend by dropping the denominations from their names, Catholic churches have curiously remained mostly unchanged.
And the number of Catholic students reflects this.
They are much more likely to identify as Catholic, he said, because there exists within that church a greater emphasis on maintaining a uniquely Catholic identity—through its traditional Mass, or through its papacy, for example.
Baptist students, alternatively, may hold ideals which align with Baptist theology, but they may not check the Baptist box. And so, the numbers shrink.
While these ideas may seem alarming at first, they do not suggest a death of religiosity. They seem to indicate, instead, a redefining.
Last year, more incoming students said than ever before in their admissions materials that Christianity was “very important to them,” Lake said.
This seems to suggest that since its break with being Baptist, it’s not that the university was turning its back on a particular faith, but rather that it was embracing many others.
“We’re practicing a mere Christianity. Our split with the TBC clarified how open we are to Catholics,” Lake said.
It’s an openness defined by Belmont literally practicing what it preaches. As the Catholic population has increased, so have the university’s efforts to accommodate it.
With last year’s completion of the WAC and its chapel, Mass transitioned from an occasional event hosted wherever space was available to a full-bodied service held every Sunday.
University Catholic, an organization unofficially associated with Vanderbilt University, assigned their chaplain, Father John Baker, to lead these Masses at Belmont. He now divides his time between the two universities, leading Mass during the week at Vanderbilt and on Sunday at Belmont.
Additionally, University Ministries has catered to the Catholic community by publishing Lenten guides and hosting an Ash Wednesday service officiated by a bishop.
“In University Ministries—at least the people I’ve worked with—it’s been their goal to make sure that when Belmont presents itself as a Christian university, that the Catholic students know that includes them, too,” said Ward. “They’re just very intentional about making Belmont a place that is welcoming to all Christian faith traditions.”
And as an educational institution—and as an institution of faith—Belmont has been made stronger because of it, Lake said.
“I don’t think you can do Christian education without welcoming Catholicism and intentionally including Catholic insights. Wherever you look, Catholics have had an enormous impact.”
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