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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

The same Church, but not mine

I've been in Europe for six months now, but the most fulfilling Mass I've been to was three weeks ago. It was Ash Wednesday and my Austrian host sister and I went to evening Mass in the Stephansdom, the Vienna Cathedral.

I stared at the rafters, the gothic arches and stained-glass windows pointing towards God, in their magnificence effectively all but forgetting little me sitting inside on the makeshift bench above the concrete floor. From my football-field-away seat, I tried to catch a glimpse of the bishop as he consecrated the Eucharist and blessed the ashes. I couldn't see most of it, but what I missed I still caught on the HDTVs lining the cathedral's interior columns.

It wasn't the beauty of the building, the prominence of the presider, or the convenience of the transmission of the message that spoke to me during this mass. Rather, what really got me was the void that remained in my spiritual fulfillment even after all of that grandeur.

The songs keyed that in most of all; wide-ranging, dramatic choral pieces composed by Austrian greats. These pieces are beautiful and unquestionably genius, but they are not Church music. Not to me, at least.

I grew up in Georgia, where the number of Catholics has significantly increased in the last 20 years, but is still a minority. Friends consistently reminded me that Jesus could save me if I would only become Christian and leave behind my Catholic ways (not an embellishment).

My parish was built in the 1970s, a true child of Vatican II. I had never sat in a Church with just one aisle down the center, a church without carpet, or a church with altar decorations fancier than the bronze lining on our glass altar table. The glass stood for transparency and inclusion, reminding you as you looked through it to the parishioners on the other side that we are all one body, one people.

Our songs reflected this unity through their sing-a-long ability (SAA, if you will). On a scale of one to 10 in SAA, I think American Southern Catholic churches would get an average of about nine, while Austrian churches chime in at about a two. For reference: ND's dorm masses range from 8.5-10 depending on the dorm, and the Basilica's SAA is closer to Austrian churches.

So as I sat there in the Stephansdom, wishing I could SA (sing along), I thought of what we would be singing then at home. One of my favorite Church songs comes only on Ash Wednesday, so I always look forward to it: "We rise again from ashes, from the good we've failed to do/We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew/If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true?/And offering of ashes, an offering to you ... "

I sat there and sang silently in my head. The symbolism of Ash Wednesday is beautiful, that we admit and accept our humble beginnings, end, and our sins in between, but we offer that to God, who is the deeper meaning in our "world of ashes." The Vienna bishop conveyed just that message in his homily, but it didn't reach me like the song from home did.

Although the Catholic Church is universal, the Church I experience in Austria is not the Church I know at home. European Catholicism as a whole tends to be more awe-inspiring and less personal, but this variance does not exist strictly at international borers: many American Catholics prefer large churches with grandiose music and strict tradition. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, both forms of worship are beautiful and deeply spiritual.

But that's still not the Church that I grew up in. It's not the Church that shaped my faith and still today provides me with a sense of belonging. So much of religious fulfillment rests in the community and the atmosphere of worship. I continue to find comfort in the uniformity of the Catholic Mass, in its familiarity, but I somehow remain a guest in these European Churches and not a member.

Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a junior History and German major currently studying abroad in Innsbruck, Austria. She is sorry that this column has such a low SAA. She can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necesarily those of The Observer.