Sonnenberg: What It’s Like to be Catholic in Mormon Utah


An icon shop in Budapest, Hungary

By Kristiane Sonnenberg

Although the LDS Church’s headquarters are located in Salt Lake City and much of the state is predominately LDS, the church has not directly affected my experience as a student at the University of Utah. After traveling through Europe, however, I realized that the omnipresence of the Mormon faith has an indirect influence on my experience as a practicing Roman Catholic.

Whether you live in LDS Utah or Catholic Croatia, the dominant faith where you live will influence your culture and knowledge about religion. I didn’t fully understand this when I moved to Utah so I wasn’t expecting that some people’s only experience of Christianity would come from the LDS Church. I was surprised when fellow students in my world religions class had never heard of the Trinity or the Incarnation, two important doctrines in mainline Christianity. Living as a member of a minority faith in Utah sometimes leads to more awkwardness than disagreements about doctrine. Ash Wednesday inevitably fosters questions as to why I have dirt on my forehead and fasting is even less fun when you have to explain your rationale. I’ve gone to the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Newman Center’s on-campus Stations of the Cross for the past two years and we get a good number of confused stares perhaps because the public processions aren’t an LDS tradition. These differences in knowledge about doctrines and practices make sense given they are not part of the LDS Church’s faith and it’s reasonable that people wouldn’t know about another church’s beliefs and traditions when they haven’t been exposed to their practices on a frequent basis.

These minor inconveniences of religious differences have stood out to me since I’ve traveled in Catholic-majority countries in Europe. I feel at home seeing cars with rosaries hanging from their rearview mirrors, public Eucharistic processions and Epiphany blessings chalked on the doorframes of homes and businesses. Churches are even more concentrated than LDS chapels, with some city centers hosting five or more churches within a five-minute walk. In countries like Croatia, where 86% of the population is Catholic, I knew everyone would know about the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation in the same way that most Utahns know about the Mormon doctrines of the premortal existence and the Great Apostasy. Currently, in Europe, I’m not looking forward to leaving the land of randomly placed icon stores and habited sisters walking on the beach.

Of course, I will have to leave and I’m beginning to see how going back to being the minority can be a good thing. While it’s inconvenient to explain my beliefs, it means I become more knowledgeable about my faith. I can engage friends in conversations about religion because I know that I offer a different perspective. It’s easy to avoid taking my faith for granted when it’s not part of the society I am immersed in. Since my religion is an important piece of my identity, I’m grateful to be part of a religious minority in Utah.

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