Steve Erspamer, S.M.
Many of us have been raised in the Church, but why do we remain Catholic? This author shares her favorite reasons and invites you to consider your own. By Kathy Coffey
DO YOU ALSO WANT TO LEAVE? (JOHN 6:67).
When Jesus first asked his disciples this question, it was poignant. Its original context made it heartbreaking. He had recently told the people, I am the bread of life (John 6:35). He had offered himself as balm for their deepest longings, promising, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (John 6:35). How did they receive the shining promise, that generous outpouring of his life? Johns Gospel is full of words like quarreling and murmuring, and they could not accept it.
Before we are quick to condemn those who turned away, we must ask ourselves the same question: What about you, do you want to go away too?
Id be the first to admit Ive been tempted. At times, Church politics gets depressing; at other times, the institution seems terminally ill. When some of our thinkers and writers are silenced, I grow sad. Some of my friends have left. So I asked myself, Why do you stay? I found it a challengeas we all mightto articulate beliefs so long and so deeply held that they had become almost dormant.
Ive borrowed an organizing device from David Lettermans Top Ten, but Im going to cheat. Ill give only nine reasons. Then its the readers turn. If I dont include your favorite reason, number 10 is up to you.
1. We are the community that remembers Jesus.
I see this especially in the surrendered lives of those who show us Christs face, his hands and eyes and words and compassionate touch. We call it the Mystical Body, but it means that we recognize Jesus in the laughter and voices of those around us: little kids, retired folks, teenagers, all those in whom Christ continues to take flesh.
While all Christian communities remember Jesus, Catholics do so in a particular, liturgical way. When someone we love has died and we try to recapture memories of that person, we usually do so through our senses. We remember Grandmas tortillas, or the song that Grandpa sang off-key. One of my friends whose husband died broke down when she smelled his after-shave lingering in his shirts.
It is the same with Jesus. When we remember him, we grope for the touch of his hands on a loaf of bread, the sound of his voice telling stories, the words he breathed into wine. We find him still in the simplest human activities, eating and drinking, gathering with friends and telling stories.
When I was teaching undergraduates at Regis Jesuit University in Denver, three students asked, Mrs. Coffey, are you coming to our Mass for Holy Thursday? I was slightly taken aback. Its not often that 19-year-old boys invite me to Mass with major enthusiasm. They did not get this excited about the English class I was teaching. So I went. And what I saw is not unique; similar liturgies occur around the country.
My college students were so dressed up I could barely recognize them. They had vested for the high holy days. They carried beautiful banners; they processed reverently with bells and baskets and bread and wine. All the while they chanted Tom Conrys song, All people here who remember Jesus, brother and friend. All who hold to his memry, all who keep faith in the end. Its for moments like those that I keep returning.
2. Catholicism has universality.
We Irish have our gifts, but mariachi music isnt one of them. So Ive been grateful to the people with Spanish and African-American backgrounds for the richness, the color, the vibrancy they bring to our faith. No one tradition has the resources to meet the challenges of the next century. Yet in the Church, we find the pluralism that the human race will need to survive.
Some examples may clarify number two. In Santa Fe, I once attended a workshop that concluded around 10 p.m. It had been a wonderful day, but we were all tired. So when we heard that wed end with the blessing, the Anglos assumed with typical efficiency, one size fits allone blessing for all of us. Wrong. Every single person got an individual blessing. I learned that night that there are some things so important they dont fit on a tight schedule.
What universality means, in practical terms, is that on Wednesday night I can visit a poor parish where the people come through pouring rain to sit on folding chairs in a gym with a leaky roof. Then on Saturday, I can fly to a mega-church which cost millions, a parish with the highest concentration of M.D.s and Ph.D.s in the country. In both places, we explore the same, unchanging Sunday Gospel that cuts cleanly across all the differences.
At the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the range of liturgies makes this principle visible. Twenty thousand people fill the Anaheim arena, all glad to be Catholic, all holding hands for the Our Father. Universality takes on flesh when African Americans dance The Deers Cry, an eighth-century Irish prayer.
3. Catholics make bold claims.
Sometimes these startle people of other traditions. Who do you think you are? they might ask. We answer, seriously and repeatedly, we are Christs presence on earth today. We cooperate with God to build Gods kingdom in this world. In the Eucharist, we say that through bread and wine, we become the body of Christ. It may sound arrogant, but this is what Jesus meant when he said, You will do greater things than I have done. Hows that for a bold claim?
Each sacrament is similar, but take Confirmation as another example. We say, through this ritual gesture of imposing hands and this chrism signed on the forehead, the Spirit comes. The same Spirit transformed terrified disciples whod locked themselves in a room in fear of the authorities. The same Spirit transfigured the known world through the efforts of 12 people who werent especially bright or powerful. This same Spirit is ours.
4. The Church is a family.
The Church is at its best when its members are like family: When we lose sight of that, we become legalistic, antiseptic and cold. Sometimes its a dysfunctional family, but it gives my children something broader and deeper than anything I could ever give them alone. My oldest son, David, recently returned from Chicago, where he attended Mass at OHare Airport. He said something Ive waited 23 years to hear: Thats what I love about being Catholic. Its the same everywhere in the world. I know what to do when they take up the collection!
When the rite of election was celebrated at the cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, one little girl could barely reach the Book of the Elect on the altar. So the bishop held her up. She tried to copy her name off her name tag, and got the first name fine. But when the last name proved too much, the bishop wrote it for herwhat any kind grandfather would do!
I recently saw a Baptism in Raleigh, North Carolina, that symbolized what were all about. A tiny baby was immersed in a huge pool of warm water, then wrapped up in a white towel. The priest brought her forward and called all the children of the parish to meet the new member of the family. While the people said the Creed, the children (hundreds of them, materializing out of the woodwork) marked the Sign of the Cross on the infant. That is typically Catholic: Our most important messages arent put in words, but in gestures that speak at a level far deeper than language.
5. We have splendid heroes and heroines.
In a presidential campaign, the Republicans associate themselves with Lincoln, and the Democrats reminded us that they are the party of Kennedy. We could borrow that tactic, saying stoutly, We are the Church of Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, Vincent de Paul, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Rigoberta Menchu, the martyrs of El Salvador...and the litany could continue.
Richard Rohr, O.F.M., maintains that one difference between a sacred culture and our contemporary culture is that the sacred culture holds up its heroes, saying, These are the people worth imitating. The Franciscans in California, for instance, named their missions (and eventually the cities) Santa Barbara, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa, San Diego.
But what heroes do we offer our children? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone and Michael Jackson have little or nothing to teach the soul. The frightening thing about that is that we become what we imitate. Fortunately, Catholics have an alternate set of heroes and heroines.
6. Catholics always have something to celebrate.
Guardian angels in October, the communion of saints in November, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Nicholas and Santa Lucia in Advent, Catholic Education Week in January, Mardi Gras, burying the Alleluia on Ash Wednesday and resurrecting it on Easter, Pentecost and the Marian feaststhe list seems infinite. I even heard about a Hispanic parish with an Irish pastor where they had a fiesta for St. Patricks Day!
Garrison Keillor, popular author and radio performer, remembers his Lutheran upbringing in his book Lake Wobegon Days. As a boy he envied Catholic Christmas, Easter, the living rosary and the blessing of the animals, all magnificent. The feast day of St. Francis was a feast for the eyes. Cows, horses, some pigs, right on the church lawn....The band of third-graders playing Catholic dirges and the great calm of the Sisters, and the flags and the Knights of Columbus decked out in their handsome black suitsI stared at it until my eyes almost fell out....We didnt go in for feasts or ceremonies...while not far away the Catholics were whooping it up. I wasnt allowed inside Our Lady, of course, but if the blessing of the animals on the Feast of St. Francis was any indication, Lord, I didnt know but what they had elephants in there and acrobats.
In contrast, my husband teaches Jehovahs Witness children, who are not allowed to celebrate Halloween, Christmas or even their own birthdays. What a dreary, gray existence it could be without a feast or fast to liven it up!
7. We draw on a rich spirituality.
I know of no other tradition that celebrates the sacredness of the ordinary as we do. All our sacraments name and claim the divine depth that sustains ordinary life. So our symbols that speak most eloquently are drawn from the most usual, earthy things: wheat and vine, water, oil, touch. Such a sacramental theology says that even when we are not aware of it, a wondrous grace and mystery surround us always. Just as the bread and wine are transformed, so are we. The words This is my body are spoken not only over bread, but also over us.
A Church that puts Eucharist at its center rewards the seeker, the hungry, those who dont have their acts together, who dont know all the answers, but who need to come back, week after week, and are always invited to return to the table. Author Nathan Mitchell reminds us, We are most ourselves when we gather not for ritual slaughter or strategic planning, but to give thanks. Our ritual actions prompt us to pay attention to what is already going onhow much Gods grace and power are already at play in our world.
8. We take staunch stands on peace and justice.
Each locale boasts its own examples, but across the United States homeless shelters, hospices, soup kitchens, battered-womens shelters, AIDS treatment centers, literacy programs, day-care centers, hospitals and schools are sponsored and staffed by the Catholic Church. In many parts of the country we sponsor immigration services and tutoring in English. Internationally the work for justice continues through agencies like Catholic Relief Services, Maryknoll and Jesuit Refugee Services.
When the government proposed welfare cuts that would endanger the poor, the Catholic bishops protested loudly and forthrightly.
These clear actions and positions are balanced by the humility to admit we cant do it all. As the prayer of Archbishop Oscar Romero said, our limitations are an opportunity for the Lords grace to enter and complete our work.
9. The Church can contain tensions.
This may seem odd, but I relish an image of Church like a huge tent or umbrella under which everyone can fit. Sometimes we seem to be splitting our seams, but we all still stay because this is where we belong; this is home. It is a tension into which we can relax, a struggle that can be lived.
Somehow the Catholic Church holds it all in balance: the treasures of the Vatican art galleries and the poverty of the Franciscans; the exuberance of the charismatics and the quietness of centering prayer; drums, guitars, trombonesand Gregorian chant. Any other Church would have a million splinter groups: We contain it all. As James Joyce says, the Catholic Church means Here comes everybody. Sister Jose Hobday says her dad joined the Catholic Church because it had more riffraff than any other.
10. Its your turn!
Now whats your favorite reason (or reasons) for being a Catholic?
E-Mail your reasons us us.
Kathy Coffey is the author of Hidden Women of the Gospels, Experiencing God With Your Children (both from Crossroad Publishing Company) and poetry published in St. Anthony Messenger. She first presented these ideas as a keynote address in Lubbock, Texas.