A Grad Student’s Spiritual Adventure in Brussels
by Jessica M. Alampay
St. Mark’s University Parish in Santa Barbara was like my second home. During my time there, I invited and welcomed people to parish activities as if it actually were my own home.
I estimate eating one-third of my dinners at St. Mark’s during my sophomore year of college.
Six months ago I left St. Mark’s and California for Brussels, Belgium. I came to Brussels to complete a one-year M.A. program in International Conflict Analysis, to experience life in Europe, and to get some work experience here.
I knew that my experience in Belgium would be different and it certainly has been. The people are different, the attitudes towards religion are different—especially coming from young people. There isn’t really a Catholic fellowship to join at the university, and even if there were one, I wouldn’t really have the time to join it due to my irregular academic schedule.
I have had to adjust to this new atmosphere and find a way to keep growing spiritually.
Belgian church hopping
I’ve found that what is available to me here is truly abundant. First, there is certainly no lack of churches in Brussels. I can walk in any direction from my house and find a Catholic Church. Because Brussels is such a crossroads of different people—from official diplomats to refugees struggling for asylum—there is no shortage of diversity.
This diversity adds to the richness and scope of Catholicism in Brussels. I have already attended Mass in French several times as well as Spanish. I have visited a Polish church, but there were literally too many people so that I was unable to even enter. My goal is to attend Mass in as many interesting languages as I can, including Arabic in the Maronite, Melkite, and Chaldean Rites , as well as in Tagalog.
I look forward to these experiences not only as a language buff, but in order to experience what worship is like in all of these different cultures. I want to learn and be able to appreciate the variety that exists in Catholicism, for which in Brussels there seems unlimited possibilities. No longer the host as I was at St. Mark’s, I have never failed to receive warm smiles upon visiting these new churches, and it becomes easy to be open to new ways of seeing my own faith.
Community of two
Although I enjoy the “church-hopping,” I do attend Sunday mass in English at a church called L’Eglise de St. Jacques sur Coudenberg.
I attend this mass with my good friend and classmate, Kathryn. Kathryn, from the Central Coast of California, recently completed her undergraduate studies after having raised two children. Speaking with her at the “welcome” cocktail party hosted by my school, the subject of attending Mass came up, and I told her about my plans, having already found a mass in English within walking distance from where I lived. Although Kathryn had not attended Mass regularly for several years, she seemed intrigued, and I invited her to come with me.
My first Sunday alone in Brussels I received a call on my mobile phone as I was walking to church—it was Kathryn asking where I would be sitting. I did not realize it at the time, but this would be the beginning of Kathryn’s return to regular mass attendance and to the Catholic spirituality of her youth.
Kathryn and I meet for mass each
Sunday, and I am grateful to have a good and loving friend beside me. Afterwards we go for tea, sometimes for a small brunch—or if we are daring to the vast outdoor market where one can find food from across the Middle East and indeed all over the world.
Whereas my undergraduate faith community was made up mostly of students and the other parishioners at St. Mark’s, my Catholic community here in Brussels is mainly Kathryn and I. Each Sunday she is moved again by her experience in Mass, and it is a renewing experience for us both.
The pilgrimage of life
The time I spent at St. Mark’s in Santa Barbara, I was very dedicated to the service of that community. Now I am unable to fulfill those roles; I have to focus more on my own growth. I find that this new experience of more solitude is shaping and forming who I am.
And my Catholic adventure in Brussels has been both a challenge and a blessing. It has allowed me to grow and to explore the different facets of Catholicism in this city. I am able to witness the interaction of cultures and socio-economic groups—from professionals to recent immigrants from all over the world—and experience how the fusing of these practices is creating a new experience of Roman Catholicism in the world.