(CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters)
A man covered with mud prays while holding a candle during a ceremony celebrating the feast of St. John the Baptist in the remote village of Bibiclat, Philippines, June 24.
Here’s a question: Just what is Catholicism? In part it’s gathering in God’s glory
July 10th, 2012
By Father Charles Puthota
What does it mean to be Catholic? We wonder about our identity as Catholics. Many of us are born Catholic. We were baptized as babies. I was only 8 days old when I was baptized in my over 200-year-old parish church. Some of us embraced our faith through deliberate choice at a later stage. Year after year at the Easter Vigil we are delighted and inspired by those who choose to become Catholic after going through the RCIA program. We teach the faith to our school children and in the faith formation programs. I meet men in their 80s sometimes who boast about being altar servers while growing up; it is as if that was an important part of their identity. During funerals, one of the compliments the family would often pay to the memory of the deceased is that the dear departed cherished the practice of Catholic faith.
The central practice of Catholicism is to be gathered at the eucharistic celebration week after week, remembering Jesus, hearing God’s word, singing hymns, partaking of the body of Christ, and being sent away to help, heal and transform the world. This ritual has been going on for over 2,000 years. In the first and second centuries, the Romans and Greeks and other nearby nations thought that Christians were crazy in coming together to break the bread in the name of someone who had been crucified. And yet, this tradition of coming together to “take the bread, bless it, break it, and give it” came to be the foundation on which Christianity found its identity and strength.
Sacraments related to our life journey
Besides the Eucharist, we celebrate other sacraments which are intimately related to our life journey of birth, growth, maturity, intimacy, disease, diminishment and death. Further we observe various devotions and pious practices. We take pride in the creed, our dogmas, and doctrines.
Being immersed in these religious beliefs, rituals and practices, we might lose sight of the larger picture of who we are as Catholics. Just what is Catholicism?
Father Richard McBrien in his famous book Catholicism, answers this question in a scholarly and yet simple manner. He gives six points:
1. Catholicism is a Christian tradition, a way of life and a community.
2. The word Catholic, derived from Greek, means “universal.” Its opposite is sectarian rather than Protestant.
3. Many non-Catholic Christians insist on the use of the adjective Roman to describe the church that is in union with Rome, because they also regard themselves as Catholic. But there are Eastern rite churches that are in union with Rome, and yet are not of the Roman, or Latin rite. Therefore, the adjective Roman would pertain only to a portion of the church that is in union with Rome, albeit the largest portion by far.
4. Catholicism is, first of all, a way of being human, then a way of being religious, and then a way of being Christian. Catholicism can only be understood within this wider context.
5. Catholicism is characterized by three principles: sacramentality, mediation and communion. The special configuration of these three principles within Catholicism constitutes its distinctiveness. It is a tradition that sees God in all things (sacramentality), using the human, the material, and the finite (mediation), to bring about the unity of humankind (communion).
6. Other distinctively Catholic principles include its emphasis on tradition, its regard for reason, its analogical imagination, and its universality, including a both/and rather than an either/or approach to Christian faith and practice.
A faith that views all reality as sacred
Father McBrien’s summary can help us understand and appreciate the vision of Catholicism, which takes a robustly positive approach toward God and the world. It views all reality as sacred. It sees “the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the imminent, the eternal in the historical.”
Catholicism holds that through the unfolding of history, in the material reality, through progress and failure, our struggles and triumphs, our encounter with the divine is made possible. In other words, the world channelizes the grace of God to us. Therefore we are to love the world as God loves the world.
The ultimate goal of Catholicism is to build up the human family and gather it all for the glory of God and the triumph of human destiny. This is what we call the kingdom of God. Catholicism aspires profoundly for unity and union: that Jesus’ prayer that all may be one may become a reality. All nations, all peoples, all cultures, all religions will be gathered and united by God.
Let’s ponder the grand vision of Catholicism, share in it, and pride in it by making that vision part of our daily existence. In “Finnegan’s Wake,” the Irish author James Joyce says: “Catholic” means “Here comes everybody!” It means that Catholic faith includes everyone. No one is excluded. All are welcome! No one a stranger!
A pastor asked a man if there was a reason why he was not present at the church services. He replied that there were too many hypocrites in the church. The pastor said to him: “Let that not keep you away. There is always room for one more.”
If you find the perfect church, don’t join it because it will no longer be perfect.
My principle is simply this: You can criticize the church all you want, but first you must love it. It’s the same way you earn the right to criticize your own children or family because you first love them. The church is not a perfect place. It’s both sacred and secular; it’s both divine and human. As Christ’s bride, it’s perfect, but with us as members, it constantly struggles with sin and selfishness. We are both graced and sinful. Before we assume the authority to criticize the church, do we love it? If we do, then even the criticism may become an expression of our love for the church.
Father Puthota is pastor of St. Veronica Church, South San Francisco.
From July 13, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.