Studying a Maine Parish for a Glimpse into Contemporary Catholicism
More precisely, she will be looking at the parish’s relationship to just one ritual — albeit one that is a cornerstone of Catholicism: the Eucharist, when Catholics take the bread and drink the wine that represent Christ’s body and blood.
She sees the Eucharist ritual as a unique way to examine the relationship and tensions between church doctrines and the personal understandings that individual Catholics give to their faith.
“I’m a practicing Catholic, that is where I should start,” Kostin said recently, before launching into an explanation of her project. “But I have lots and lots of questions personally, so it’s a little selfish as well, this project.”
This summer, the religion major and education minor has a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship from Bowdoin to do research and lay out a framework for her upcoming honors project in the religion department, which she is calling “A Community Celebrating Communion,” another term for the Eucharist ritual. She is one of nearly 300 students this summer who received funding from Bowdoin to pursue research or internships.
Because the nature of her questions to parishioners will be personal, Kostin prefers not to divulge the location and name of the church in which she will do her research. “Faith is first and foremost something personal, I think,” she said, adding, “You turn to your church for guidance. Or at least that seems to be the trend, especially in American Catholicism.”
It is this private side of Catholicism that is intriguing to Kostin, who is curious about how the personal beliefs that individual Catholics hold reflect, or contradict, Church orthodoxy. “The buzzword is ‘personal authority’,” she said. “I want to know if and how personal authority can be in opposition to, or in conjunction with, papal authority.”
For centuries, the Church and its popes, bishops, and cardinals have wielded great influence in people’s lives and in shaping people’s beliefs. “When the Vatican does pronounce something, we do believe it is divinely inspired,” she said. “And from that we get a lot of teachings and doctrines that we believe are guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Yet, she added, “at the same time, you have millions of Catholics around the world living out their personal faiths.” One way this can most obviously lead to tension, she said, is around issues of “social justice,” such as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.
Nonetheless, examining Catholics’ views about these controversial topics doesn’t appeal to Kostin. “As interesting as it is, I didn’t want to go there. Those are sensitive issues and a lot of work has been done on them.”
Instead, for her Bowdoin project she is taking an original, and mystical, approach to study the relationship between personal views and Church dogma. It made sense to her to use the Eucharist ritual, which takes place daily in Catholic churches around the world, as a lens through which to pursue her question.
“The Catholic Church calls the Eucharist the source and summit of our faith, so everything we do as a Church officially centers around this sacrament and what it does,” she said. “As Catholics, at least officially, we believe in transubstantiation—that the celebration of the Eucharist completely transforms the bread and wine into the sacramental body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is what makes us unique among all the other Christian denominations. Through Communion, the Church perpetuates Jesus’s sacrifice for humanity’s sins, and realizes the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to remain present with us always.”
So when Catholics express skepticism about the Eucharist, it is perplexing. But she can relate, Kostin quickly adds. “It’s a crazy thing!” she said. “It’s easier to accept, I think, if you’ve been raised in it like I have. But it sounds crazy and it’s a difficult concept to grasp.”
Over the years, Kostin has grappled with how it works herself. “I have first come to terms with never fully comprehending it,” she said. “It is a mystery. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask a thousand and one questions and try to understand.”
While her beliefs about the Eucharist are complex, simply put, she says she believes that Jesus sacrificed his body and his blood as a perfect example of mercy and love. And every week she receives Communion. “I do very reverently receive the body and blood of Christ and carry that with me throughout the week,” she said. “And I think, ‘I don’t know how this works but I do believe Jesus is here with me, even now, almost 2,000 years after his death.'”
Part of her research will consist of interviews. Starting in the fall, Kostin says she’s looking forward to speaking with twenty to forty volunteer parishioners about their personal views on the Eucharist and the concepts underlying this sacrament, such as transubstantiation or real presence, sacrifice, and ritual.
This summer, as she has laid the foundational work for her research, Kostin said she has also looked deeply into her own faith, finding there an empathy with others confronting the complexities and mysteries of Catholicism and religious belief. “It is deepening my personal faith but also deepening my respect for people’s confusion,” she said.
An Interfaith Perspective
”I’m really interested in and passionate about interfaith dialogue,” Viviane Kostin said. Being a Catholic at Bowdoin, where she often is a minority in her religion classes, has encouraged Kostin to think about how people of different faiths, or of no faith, can best understand one another. “Religious people have a lot to learn from people who are skeptical of religion; there are valid reasons for this,” she said.
While she has a lot of different ideas about possible careers, one of the ones she talks about that reflects her interest in interfaith dialogue is teaching for a public school, where she would like to offer a world religions course.
“I so hope that, by teaching world religions in our public schools, we could foster a genuine acceptance and appreciation of all faith backgrounds and perspectives, and enable our upcoming generations of leaders to converse more effectively and compromise more peacefully,”she said.