My friend recently asked me as part of an email conversation, why I stay in the Catholic church. “If that sounds confrontational, it's not,” he wrote in his email. “At least not yet. I am genuinely curious.” My friend was raised Catholic but is not currently a practicing member of any religion. He credits the Jesuits with saving his life in high school, went to Georgetown University for undergrad and married a Catholic woman he met there. They now have four children. His wife is still a practicing Catholic and brings the younger kids to Mass and religious education. Bill and I are godparents to their third child.
My friend’s question is a fair one. He’s not asking why I’m Christian; he’s not questioning my faith in God; he’s asking me why I belong to a religion that has some elements that he knows I disagree with. He knows, for example that I believe the church should ordain married people of both genders, along with men and women who choose celibacy. He knows I believe the question of birth control and family planning is complex and should not be simplified into a one-size-fits-all teaching. He knows that Bill and I have a depth of understanding of the ramifications of all types of child abuse, and yet have chosen to stay with a church whose leaders failed to protect children from the most egregious of abuse. He knows I hold dear our gay friends and colleagues—that I believe they should be as welcome at the Eucharistic table as they are at our own dining room table.
And yet I’m Catholic. Passionately Catholic. And I could no more change to another Christian religion than I could peel off my skin and exchange it for a different tone with a better hue.
Why am I Catholic? I may not embrace or even agree with all the teachings of the church, but I believe in all the sacraments. I believe in God's grace working through them. I've felt the grace; I've seen it. I’ve received Communion and have been grateful for the grace that carried me through a difficult relationship. Eucharistic grace that allowed me to be able to reach beyond the angry words I wanted to say to a difficult person, to the better words I needed to say to begin to heal the relationship.
I’ve felt the grace present in the sacrament of reconciliation. I’ve seen my children leave the church after going to reconciliation, feeling more peaceful, acting more loving, trying harder to be who they are called to be. Not leaving the church perfect, by any means—none of us do—but coming out of the sacrament, still imperfect, but full of grace. I remember Liam running around the parking lot of the church when he was about eight, after his first reconciliation, yelling, “I feel so light!” I have felt that lightness, too. It is grace.
It is marriage where I’ve probably felt sacramental grace most strongly. Grace times two. So powerful. Bill and I continue to turn to our vows; to our promise to God; to each other. I see the same grace in the marriages of my friends. One friend, whose husband made a hurtful choice, responded by upping her prayer; by turning to her husband; by recognizing not only her own pain, but his. She allowed his poor choice to propel them together more in search of God, rather than letting his behavior be a reason to drift apart. I watched their grace and it made me weep.
Some sacraments seem under-utilized. We do not need to reserve the sacrament of the sick for the dying. Any serious problem—mental, physical, emotional—can be a reason to receive the sacrament. I asked that my daughter Jamie be anointed when she was one—not because she seemed sick, but because I knew of her past history before she came to us as a foster child. I knew healing was needed. I asked for it. I felt the grace. I feel it now. In 11-year-old Jamie’s exuberant presence is God’s grace.
And then there’s ordination. God’s profound grace. Some of the most influential, inspirational people Bill and I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and listening to are (or were) priests: Fr. John Eagan; Fr. Bob Purcell; Fr. Melvin Michalski; Fr. Jack Kern; Fr. Bryan Massingale; Fr. Bob Wells; Fr. Pat Smith; Fr. Mike Bertram; Fr. John Naus; Fr. Andre Father Andre Papineau; Fr. Tim Kitzke; Fr. Joe Juknialis; Fr. John Fitzgibbons. These amazing people, in their homilies and in the way they live (or lived) their lives, inspired the decisions we have made and have deepened our own faith journey. Holy Orders is a beautiful, grace-filled sacrament. It’s just not expansive enough—we could have even more grace-filled people leading our church.
I couldn’t say all this to my friend in my email, because the email came in at work and I didn’t have time to respond. But I can say it now. I can explain that I stay in the Catholic church because of God’s grace present in the sacraments. I have seen how this grace has led to prayer, service and goodness in the world. This grace is present in Catholic Social Teaching, a beautiful set of letters and documents about how we are called to serve our world in a very concrete and practical way.
I am part of the Catholic Church because I see God’s grace-filled people, nourished by the sacraments; anointed with oil, splashed with the water of baptism, serving God in great numbers. They are teaching in schools; working for change in social service agencies; bringing about good in the public and private sector; they are housing refugees and giving food and shelter to the needy; they are bandaging the hurt and the broken; giving medicine to the ill; they are visiting those in prison; they are speaking out against injustice. I see them, and I strive to use my God-given grace as well as they are. That’s why I’m Catholic.
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