I was born in 1949 and raised Catholic in a small community in Western Massachusetts. I practiced Catholicism until I was 18-years old and then chose not to when mandatory chapel no longer applied to me as a sophomore at the United States Air Force Academy in 1968. No one seemed to mind. In the early hours of the morning as I drove to work some 40 years later, a small chapel in New Melle, Missouri beckoned me to return. Today, I contemplate and attend daily Mass for several hours each day.
I never knew what it meant to be a Catholic. In recent years, it became important for me to know. It is easy enough to say – and to believe for that matter – that if one practices Catholicism and ‘follows all of the rules and regs’ – many of which I am certain I have no knowledge of – then one is Catholic. I am not certain of that.
While my journey has been influenced in no small way by my lifelong friend, a priest I befriended in 1960 at the home of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, and by my four-year association with the Redemptorist priests at the Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Father Robert Barron of PBS renown is the man who put what ‘being Catholic’ is into clear perspective for me. I first learned about Father Barron through a lecture series by the Redemptorists at the Center here in the Sonoran Desert.
This week – in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement – I have been exposed to several well meaning, though very questioning and pointed comments regarding Catholicism. Here are a few examples including a pair of OpEds from the New York Times:
- “Constant Drumbeat’ Sped the Pope’s Exit” from NYT
- “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope” from NYT
- “To all my Catholic friends: what is the response to HBO’s Mea Maxima Culpa special on child abuse? I am truly interested in an explanation.”
- “The people are the Church. Let them have it again, without the child molester priests”
- “I do not question spirituality, but I do question the church leadership, the hierarchy. See HBO’s Mea Maxima Culpa”
- “Abusing deaf children. What kind of church is this that would condone this? See Mea Maxima Culpa on HBO”
- “Are we seeing the last days of the Catholic church? The longest existing institution on the planet?”
- “Pope Benedict XVI to resign in weeks. I didn’t know Popes could resign! WWJD? He would stay on the job, that’s what!”
I have taken no offense to any of this. Being a Catholic and/or being a priest does not make a person perfect nor does it make a person immune to temptation and sin. It does make a person repentant. I know not a single Catholic – nor a single person – who condones the incidents presented in the HBO film.
Does being a Catholic make one a better person? I don’t know, but as imperfect as I am, Catholicism has made me a better person. Are all Catholics good people; Are all good people Catholic? Not hardly.
For those questioning minds who want to know what being a Catholic is, I offer the final words of Father Barron’s book Catholicism. His words are not written on stone tablets, merely on paper pages, but they give me the strength to say with confidence that I do practice Catholicism, and I practice it with faith and good reason, although reason is not a prerequisite. If you prefer to print the excerpt and read it later, this link will take you to a PDF copy you can print and/or save.
“For I am certain that God speaks through the sinuous arguments of Aquinas, through the upward-thrusting lines of the Cologne Cathedral, through the artfully crafted story of tortured Job, through the tear-stained pages of Augustine’s Confessions, through the letters that Paul wrote from prison, through the profession of faith given by Simon Bar-jona at Caesarea-Philippi, through a speech offered to puzzled philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens, and through the missionary journeys of Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier. I am sure that God whispers in the apse mosaic in San Clemente, in that Noah’s ark that is Notre Dame Cathedral, the statues of the apostles in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in the infallible umpiring of the popes, in the Rhapsodic Theatre of young Karol Wojtyła, and in the rhythmic “we want God” chant of the Warsaw throng.
“And I am convinced that God communicates himself in the angel’s “Ave” to a Galilean girl, in the torch-lit parade in Ephesus in honor of Theotokos, in the heavenly lady who appeared to an Indian man on his way to Mass, in what appears to the world to be the utter uselessness of the sacred Liturgy in transfigured signs of bread and wine, in the troubled hears of two women who left the presence of Pope Leo XIII in tears, in the Birkenau gas chambers in which a brave and brilliant nun died, and in a call heard on the way to Darjeeling: “help the poorest of the poor.” I am persuaded that God expresses himself in the electric intensity of the Sainte-Chapelle, in the dingy coffee shop on 111th Street that became, for a young spiritual seeker fresh from Mass, the Elysian fields, in the mystical poetry of a Spanish friar madly in love, in the pierced heart of Teresa of Avila, in the epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the severity of Lough Derg, in the chants and dances that honor young martyrs of Uganda, and in the singing of the fiery Seraphim, burnt by their proximity to the holy.
“And I have based my life on the knowledge that God speaks with greatest clarity in the Bethlehem baby, too weak to raise his head but more powerful than Caesar Augustus, in the rabbi who, trumping the Torah itself, told all of us how to find beatitude, in the warrior who picked a fight in the Temple precincts, in the young man, tortured to death on a squalid hill outside Jerusalem, with the words, ‘Father, forgive them,’ on this lips, in the risen one who said ‘Shalom’ to those who had abandoned and betrayed him, in Maschiach Ieshoua, Christ Jesus, the Lord of the nations.
“To hear the echo of God’s voice in all these things is to be a Catholic.”