Posted December 4, 2008
A Letter from a Dad to his Son on Staying Catholic
by John Hazzard
You were wondering why you should stay Catholic. Good. Something every adult Catholic should ask. Doubt is useful if it opens doors for growth. It was once said of a famous bishop that “he does not suffer the doubts that tormented the saints.”
I can’t tell you your answer. Prayerfully and honestly search out the truth for yourself. I trust you to do a good job of that and will support you wherever you land.
However, your question prompted me to think through again where I stand on my own faith. This resulted in a whole bunch of notes that finally morphed into a sort of essay, which may or may not be of help.
I have left out a lot of good stuff about Catholicism. This is just a summary of some new insights that have come to me in the last several years – ideas that have become a major part of the reasons I am and shall remain a Catholic.
So here we go – an undocumented ramble of opinions and beliefs loosely stacked in four piles – God, Christianity, Catholicism, and what might lie ahead for Catholicism.
COSMIC REALITY AND GOD
Astronomers tell us they have seen objects 12 billion light years away. If the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, how many miles is that? You could capture the answer mathematically as ten to the whatevereth power, but actually to picture that distance is beyond human capacity. Earth is a tiny speck in our solar system, third rock out. The sun around which our earth spins is an insignificant scintilla near the edge of that spiral dance of stars which is our galaxy. How big is our galaxy? If our entire solar system, sun and all the planets, were to fit within the diameter of a teacup, our home galaxy would be the size of the entire North American continent, Arctic Ocean to the canal. Yet our galaxy is small potatoes in a universe which, the experts tell us, holds at least two hundred billion galaxies.
This universe is an enigma. It is gorgeous for its size and beauty. But it is also a place of unimaginable violence – dark matter, exploding stars, deadly cosmic rays, and black holes sucking up space and time. Our planet, too, is a curious blend of breathtaking beauty, of ecological stability and peaceful intermixing of species, on the one hand, and on the other a maelstrom of violence, torn by storm and flood, volcano and earthquake, evolving its life forms through the horribly painful process of natural selection and ubiquitous death.
The intelligent life on this planet presents a curious mixture as well. We’re capable of love, courage, art, ingenuity, joy and rich spirituality. But there’s also great evil in us. Coercion, whether economic or physical, is the glue that holds our societies together. Exploitation of the weak is the most common path to prosperity and self-congratulation, whether for the individual or for the group. War is taken to be not only necessary but heroic, even fulfilling, a cause for parades. And what other creature on earth resorts to torture of its own species as a means of coercion, revenge or pleasure?
Therefore, for all its happiness, goodness and beauty, the animal kingdom as a whole, and the human race within it, often screams with the agony of loss and fear and pain and death.
What are we to make of all this? Using reason alone, we might conclude that as individuals we have precious little significance in a mind-boggling universe. We might decide also that as a species, for all our vaunted brilliance and virtues, we are at the same time stupid, malevolent, and intent on our own destruction. Where in all of this puzzling creation and anomalous human behavior are we to find a God who loves each of us individually and wants each of us to live forever? Could there even be such a God?
Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury offered elegant philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Thomas’ argument from cause suffices for me: a universe of this complexity could not have evolved by accident. Therefore I know that some kind of God exists. But the God uncovered through reason alone is no more than a dry, logical construct.
No purely rational proof has been or can be found for the existence of a God of love, a God whose existence and message could lift us out of the insignificance and despair of our human condition.
CHRISTIANITY AND FAITH
There appears to be no way to discover a good God except by faith. And, since we’re leading up to Catholicism, I want to look at the Christian type of faith.
I’m not using “faith” merely to describe assent to a statement about a truth or truths, such as we find in the Nicene Creed, or about the validity of this or that tradition. Those are legitimate and helpful uses of the word, but for the moment I mean something else. I’m talking about faith as a leap into the unknown and unknowable. It is not unlike the trust that small children place in their parents – flowing not from a rational thought process but from a blind conviction that they are loved and cared for and safe.
Like children, we Christians must rely on certain unprovable suppositions. We have to accept on faith that the God of the philosophers is also a God utterly and infinitely in love with his creatures – and furthermore, that he wants to tell us about it. Big jump, that. But once you make those assumptions, a certain logic falls into place.
How would God most logically go about letting us in on his love? We are creatures of flesh and blood and emotion. All our insights come to us through the senses, through what we see and hear and feel. So God chose an appropriate way to reach our minds and change our hearts. He did it by becoming one of us, by walking among us as a friend, by explaining the truths of life by word and example. What could be more effective than that? That’s why I think there’s overwhelming logic in the coming of Jesus into our world.
It’s quite logical as to method, yes, but the motive is beyond our logic: a most astonishing gesture of God’s love. The author of this dazzling universe, the very essence of timeless Being and Truth and Power, stoops to reveal himself, to speak a startling message from beyond the far reaches of creation, by becoming one of us. Jesus, truly God, truly human, is the disclosure of the living God, the miracle of God with us, the absolute self-gift of God.
That God would so love us as to live among us and teach us and lead us to himself is the incomprehensible reality, the amazing grace, at the heart of Christianity.
And what is Jesus’ message? Shocking, challenging, a reversal of all that we commonly take to be important, radically different from what we could expect, so contrary to our ordinary habits and assumptions that it could have come only from a source outside of and beyond the reach of our wisdom. The “otherness” of his message seems logically to substantiate its origin in a larger, incomprehensible reality, a God of love.
Dynamic and powerful beyond imagination, this God-Man chose to live a life of poverty and simplicity. He asked questions and spoke parables to teach crazy things such as riches are an impediment; being persecuted is an honor; forgiveness is mandatory; evil is to be repaid with good; the poor, the weak, the sick, and the despised are of special concern to God; judgment belongs only to God; and you have to die to live. Everything in his message is paradoxical, unexpected, uncomfortable, amazing, difficult to accept. His values are the opposite of what we ordinarily and naturally take to be important. The call of God in Jesus is nothing less than a demand to turn around, to set everything on its head, to let go, to trust.
But telling us of this new reality was not enough. He showed us. He voluntarily underwent a ghastly, debasing end, tortured to death as a worthless criminal. By doing this, he demonstrated two absolutes, two goals for our behavior: an absolute submission to God’s will and an absolute refusal to return evil for evil. In fact, at a deeper level, these two are one, a graphic map for our path to God.
Many in other religious traditions find it inconceivable that an inspired teacher and an elevated, superior being, such as Christians hold Jesus to be, could suffer such a catastrophic end. They say that Jesus, a thorough failure, cannot be God. But that is precisely how Jesus, with startling clarity, shows us what God is really about.
Then he went on to prove the truth of his most striking contention -- that life comes through death. By rising from the dead he showed us that if we accept his call to imitate him in his self-offering, we, too, will find new life.
I believe that this is the substance of Christianity: reliance on Christ, on his saving love, and on what he has said about life’s true values. Everything else is subordinate to these core truths.
THE PROPS OF FAITH
Subordinate, yes, but in many ways necessary. We are not abstract intelligences, we humans; our understandings are shaped by specific times and places and cultures. We also need periodically to renew our loves, our commitments, our minds, ourselves. So beyond trust in God, we also need community, visible reminders, mutual encouragement, structure, role models, and constant reiterations of the message.
Unfortunately, we easily confuse these externals with the central message of Christ. On this matter the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed a useful distinction. He suggests that we reflect on the words “religion-less Christianity.” This may seem at first to be a contradiction, but it is not. By Christianity, he means reliance on Jesus and his words. Religion, on the other hand, is made up of externals such as feast days and symbols and artistic expressions and organizational structures and rules and devotional practices and rituals -- things that surround and support our human need for community, group identity, continuity, and tangible references to the unseen. Bonhoeffer’s challenge to us is to separate the two ideas and then ask ourselves: If the externals were to be changed or taken away, what would I still believe in? In other words, am I really a Christian?
Even though there is no specific set of externals that in itself is essential to being an authentic Christian, I find that Catholicism is for me the richest form of Christianity and the place where I am most solidly supported in my efforts to wrestle with the mystery of God and Jesus. Why is this?
Many Catholics would begin at this point to make the case for Catholicism on the basis of historical and scriptural justifications for our hierarchical structure and our credal and devotional traditions. A solid case can be made that way. However, in light of what I have said about faith as different from intellectual assent and distinct from externals, I prefer to take a somewhat different tack – a list of things that I find especially fascinating in Catholicism:
Catholicism has a certain sensuality to it. It offers a wealth of tangible signs from ordinary life that bear grace-filled intimations of the work of God within and among us. It feeds the senses with light and water and anointings, with fire and incense and color and song, with evocative art and soaring architecture. It offers rituals that celebrate the stages of our lives together, walk us through the history of salvation, and mark the seasons of the year. Through the senses it reaches our feelings, our mind, and our soul.
Its theological traditions are intellectually stimulating, profound and varied. Its liturgies reach in all kinds of people, all times, all cultures. Anyone can find devotional practices or spiritual guidelines that nourish them. Its mystical traditions courageously explore the emptiness, the fullness, and the inaccessibility of God.
Catholicism also focuses strongly on our lives in the world. It reminds us of our responsibility to serve and care for others, and to have a positive effect on our surroundings. Catholic teachings on social justice are especially well-known and respected, even among other denominations. The closely related teachings on the honorable calling of ordinary people (of which more, presently) are superb.
There have been many wonderful women and men in the Catholic community with whom I have grown up and worked and laughed and worshipped and learned, friends who have been transformative examples for me, companions on the road who have shared my search for deeper meaning and stronger faith.
I love Catholicism, too, because it’s a big tent, accommodating among its motley membership all kinds of personalities, all levels of knowledge and commitment, all races and cultures. Fr. Dennis Geaney defined the Catholic Church as “Here comes everybody!”
Naturally there’s plenty of human failure and sin among us Catholics (from which even our leadership is not entirely exempt). But imperfection need not be an impediment to faith. We are an enterprise composed of human beings. The church is the Bride of Christ, yes, but as the Jesuit Karl Rahner put it, it is a bride in rags stumbling through the desert. No surprise in this; Jesus himself is both divine and human.
I love this church not least because of long association, copious memories, and warm familiarity. It is home.
THE MASS AND FAITH
I’m drawn to Catholicism for another reason, too, at once more subtle and more compelling: the Mass. It ties everything together.
Two ways of looking at the Mass seem especially rewarding.. The first shows how the Mass is, and must be, an exercise of unity and community.
St. John’s gospel has Jesus saying that he is the vine and we are the branches, which means that our spiritual life depends on our connectedness with him and we have no life except in him. St. Paul testifies to the same truth when he refers to Christ as the head of a body, and us as the other parts, various in our functions, but each necessary, and each useless and dead if we are no longer connected to the whole. John and Paul are talking about humanity’s unity with God through Jesus and the unity we share with one another as a consequence. They’re talking about redemption by way of community.
How do these theological analogies apply to the Mass?
The thinking goes this way: Only the divine/human Jesus has infinite merit, and therefore is perfectly acceptable to God. It follows, then, that only in union with Jesus, as part of him, can we share in his merits and become acceptable to God.
Contrary to popular piety, then, our redemption is not just a “me and God” thing. The analogy of the body is crucial, because as individuals we merit nothing, but as members of Christ we find our deepest worth and our access to eternal life. What’s more, if we can come to the Father only as part of the one Christ, that means we can come only as connected to one another in the one Christ. Thus is community at the heart of the mystery of redemption, and so, too, is it at the heart of the Mass. It is not something the priest alone does. It is something we all do together.
This is the profound truth that St. Augustine expressed when he said that the Mass is the Whole Christ offering the Whole Christ. In other words, the whole Body of Christ, head and members, is offering itself. When we look at the parts of the Mass, we can see this reality unfolding.
After the readings and the homily, members of the community bring forward an offering of bread and wine. There’s rich meaning here. The gifts represent each of us, all of us, everything we have done, good and bad, what we are, what we hope to be. Our offering is as flawed as we are – but we have nothing better to offer. So all of us, together, are riding with our gifts to the altar. All of us are hoping that we, along with that bread and wine, will together be changed from struggling, imperfect people into the body and blood of the Lord, the gift to God.
And then it happens … that astonishing miracle actually and really takes place. The gifts that represent us are transformed into Christ, the perfect offering – and so are we, becoming one with Christ, and therefore, like him, worthy offerings to the Father, truly children in the family of God.
We have taken the only route to the infinite majesty of God – through Christ the Mediator. We acknowledge that fact when we tell God with a loud “Amen!” that the only honor and glory we can offer to him is through Jesus, and with him and in him. Head and members together are offered; head and members together are accepted.
One with Christ, we can now address God as “Our Father.” The Aramaic word Jesus used is an intimate, familial word, best translated as “Daddy.” That’s pretty bold – on what basis can we sinners out on the fringe of creation claim intimacy with its Maker? No wonder the old phrase for introducing the Lord’s Prayer – “We dare to say...” is being restored.
Next comes the sharing of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Just as we gather regularly as family and friends, we gather in the Eucharistic banquet, a common meal, a celebration, a banquet, a party, even, that signifies our togetherness with Jesus and one another in God. When the Communion minister says, “Body of Christ,” it is more than simply a statement that what was bread is no longer bread but the body of Christ. It is also an acknowledgement that we, who were offered in that bread, are now no longer alone and flawed, but part of the body of Christ.
Finally, there is the Dismissal – an essential part of the Mass, because it’s a mandate to go out and love and serve, to live out the demanding values of Christ in everything we do, and so to prepare our bread and wine for the next Mass.
Another meaningful way to understand the Mass is to see it as a reminder.
The Christian life is supposed to be voluntary immersion with Jesus into his death and resurrection. But how can we do that? His death and resurrection happened elsewhere, and 2,000 years ago.
However, that death and resurrection is the interaction of divine persons, Son and Father, who live in the timelessness of eternity. So the submission of Jesus to the will of his Father is not only something in the past; it’s an eternal relational state that exists today and will exist forever.
Problem is, without the Mass, that eternal action to which we are supposed to subscribe would be invisible to us, far away, abstract, of no impact on our human way of knowing. So God takes what is going on always in the invisible realm of the spirit – the offering of Jesus to his Father – and makes it truly present, truly visible, over and over again, everywhere in the world, on the altars of his people.
And why does God accommodate us in this way? So that we can repeatedly remember the great mystery of the death and resurrection and choose to be part of it. He does it so that we can renew our desire to follow him, to live and die with him. Thus the Mass is a reminder: “Do this in memory of me.”
The Mass does not, cannot add to the eternal infinite power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So it’s not a way of leveraging God. It’s God’s way of leveraging us -- into following what Jesus taught and did.
There is a profound difference between the Mass and Eucharistic devotions such as Benediction. Many Catholics make no such distinction; they think the main purpose of Mass, like that of Benediction, is simply to worship Jesus in the Real Presence. At Mass, however, most of the prayers, even the words of consecration, are directed to the Father, not to Jesus. During those prayers we are praying with and in Jesus, not to him.
Seeing the Mass only as an occasion for adoring Jesus is a time-honored and accessible custom. But I don’t think it should be encouraged, whether by word, architecture, or posture. Doing so interferes with the reception of crucial messages – reminders about what we’re actually doing at Mass. By turning the Mass into personal prayer, we obscure the fact that this is something we are doing as a community, as Christ’s body. By seeing Jesus simply as a physical presence on the altar, we miss the central reality – that Jesus is there to re-present to us the most dynamic action in the universe, his offering to, and acceptance by, the Father. And Jesus is doing it to invite us to be a part of it. The appropriate response to God’s action at Mass is to re-commit ourselves to share in Jesus’ offering.
Failing this, much of God’s incredible gift goes unappreciated, and much of its relevance to our daily lives is lost.
And that raises a key issue: our daily lives. Properly understood, the Mass is how God renews our resolve to go out and live as he has told us. In fact, in one sense, our lives in the world are what the Mass is all about.
FAITH IN THE WORLD
Our lives in the world are based on two fundamental choices – what we do with our lives and why. Let me start with the “why,” because our motive colors everything we do.
There has to be more to morality and spirituality in this life than simply concerning ourselves with eternal reward and punishment. Of course, the afterlife should be a major factor in our choices. But if that is the principal consideration, how can our life be a loving response to God’s love? How can it be an extension of the self-giving we were reminded of at Mass?
What, then, is that something more that goes beyond self-interest? The answer is complicated, and in some ways out of our reach because of the mysteries of grace, free will, and the scope of redemption. But there is one piece of the answer that is no mystery: we are challenged by Christ to do the right thing because it’s right.
This idea comes through clearly in the last judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew tells a story of how the king separates the saved, represented as sheep, from the lost, the goats. The king welcomes the sheep into heaven, explaining to them that they helped him in need. The goats are in trouble because they didn’t.
Christians take this to mean that we should be kind to others because we see Christ in them. That’s a most excellent motive, but it’s not the point of this story. In the parable, the sheep ask, “When did we see you in need? ” So they didn’t see Christ in others; they responded to others because of others’ needs, not because of their own need to please Christ. Matthew appears to think that’s enough.
(I shall stick with the issue of Christian motivation and reluctantly pass over the possible relevance of this passage to the issue of salvation for unbelievers.)
I believe Matthew’s judgment story suggests that Christians ought to focus strongly on this life, to value people and places and things for what they are in themselves. We are to love and respect everyone on their own terms. We are to put ourselves mentally in the place of others, to imagine how it would feel to be a poor, cold, dirty, incompetent beggar. That’s how we learn to see things in earthly, physical, human terms, and not just in the light of the transcendent. That’s how we come to see why what is right is right. And perhaps that’s why God made us more than eternal souls; he also made us earthly, physical, temporal, dependent on one another and responsible for one another.
Something I once read says it all: “Heaven is not a reward for doing good; it is a reward for doing good without expecting a reward.”
So much for the “why” of what we are to do. What about the “what?”
I mentioned before that Catholicism has a well developed and well known body of teachings on social justice. Social justice is part of the “what” we’re called to do. But there’s a further understanding of our call, and this one hits us right where we live. I refer to the church’s teaching about the vocation of the laity.
The lay vocation is unlike that of the ordained or vowed religious person. But it is equally real and equally worthy. It is the vocation to be in and of the world.
“To be secular,” says Vatican II, “is the special vocation of the laity. They live in the world, in every one of the world’s callings, in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life. There they are called to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties.” (Italics mine)
This is amazing stuff. We are told that our opportunity to do good lies in the call to be “secular,” to be immersed in our own duties and circumstances. We are to change the world from within the ordinary.
Thus, the objective of Christian living is not only moral and spiritual, but material as well. The state of the world is not a side issue, it is an essential component of what we are to address. This means protecting and carrying forward the process of creation. It means helping to build a society where all God’s children have what he made them to have – dignity and opportunity. But how, specifically, should I respond?
My individual responsibility is built into who I am and what tools and opportunities I have been given. Those gifts constitute my personal marching orders. They tell me how I should concern myself with the well-being of all the people who are affected by my actions.
Whether my responsibilities are widespread or small, they include everyone who is going to be better or worse off because of what I do. And that means I have a lot more on my plate than simply giving good example and being kind. I am responsible also for the priorities I set and the decisions I make, both of which are likely to have lasting effects on the well-being of others.
This is not a matter of taking on anything new, such as signing up to help in the food pantry or joining an organization that works for justice. Some indeed are called to that, and I may be one of them. But the topic here is the ordinary daily duties I have, whether in my family, my social circle, or my job. This is my sacred territory. This is where I am responsible for the action. This is where I can most effectively shape the conditions around me. This is the world I can make better. This is where I, personally, must do “social justice.”
Authentic spirituality of work is nothing more than doing the work itself carefully and well, always taking into consideration the impact of our actions on others and its possible contribution to the development of society. A mother who struggles to be patient with her children is practicing that spirituality, as is the attorney who forms a group of other attorneys to help one another live up to the ethical standards of their profession. So, too, is the executive who always respects the dignity of her employees, or the carpenter who does a superb job because he knows his work is creation and prayer.
The world desperately needs us, each one of us. The miracle of Jesus’ call is that ordinary people, fulfilling their ordinary secular responsibilities, change the world – piece-by-piece.
SERVING THE MISSION
Vatican II had a great deal more to say about the vocation of the laity in the world besides the passage I quoted. It also had something to say – a lot less, in fact -- about the role of lay people within the sacramental and administrative life of the institutional church. Not surprisingly, the priest shortage has led the American bishops to concentrate on the latter issue. But it has been at the cost of passing over far more pertinent material about our secular lives.
Reflections on the dignity of the lay vocation – and the world’s dependence on it – may seem marginal to most Catholics. That’s because it hasn’t been taught. At the parish level the vocation of the laity is not even on the screen. We are told to think often of God, pray often, give good example, read the Scriptures, and avoid sin. But when do we hear in homilies or classrooms that we have a mission to change the moral and material conditions of our society by the manner in which we conduct our ordinary tasks?
As parishioners our job is not simply to participate in parish life and activities. It is also, and principally, to help one another understand how we can carry the values of the gospel into our daily tasks – always with a view towards shaping the spiritual and material future of the world. Perhaps a word to the management is in order here.
Bishops, priests, seminarians, religion teachers and parish staff all must come to understand that they are the servants of the mission given to the laity to be the church in the world, serving and transforming it. That is part and parcel of their vocation.
Fr. Jack Linnan says that a parish that does not have this outward focus cannot survive long in today’s world. When people understand their role in the world, they are less likely to question the relevance of their religion in their daily lives. Since they find new meaning and excitement in what they do all day, they experience new significance and joy when they offer it during Mass. And they take seriously the dismissal from the Mass – going in peace to love and serve the Lord. The payoff of emphasizing the lay vocation is a stronger community life in the parish and a more vital evangelization of the world.
This theology of the laity wasn’t invented by the council. It evolved slowly, over many years. I think it came to be because it came to be needed.
The world has changed. Think about the enormous transformations in human life over the last four centuries – changes in world population, government, media, science, communications, philosophy, industry, economics, education, transportation, and more. Specialized knowledge now guides and shapes the world – and specialized knowledge is the purview of the laity. So if Christian laity do not see themselves as the church in the world, charged with elevating the moral and material conditions of society, the church will not be present in the world.
The Holy Spirit isn’t likely to put up with that – hasn’t for two thousand years. So I think that’s almost certainly who’s behind the new theology. This is why I believe that respect for the lay vocation will continue to grow among Catholics and their leaders -- slowly, perhaps, but inexorably. That kind of course correction is common in the history of Catholicism – which is yet another reason Catholicism is tops on my list.
Well, that’s about it: some of my favorite gems in the treasury that is Catholicism. Rebuttals and admonitions, preferably polite, are welcome.