Soon after I converted to the Catholic faith a dear old Dominican sister gave me a word of advice, “I think it is generally a good idea,” she said, “to not refer to yourself any longer as a ‘Christian’ but use ‘Catholic'”
I was rather flabbergasted by her suggestion since to my mind in becoming a Catholic I was becoming the most fulfilled and complete Christian. What she meant, however, was that in many people’s minds to be a Christian means to be a Protestant. To be a Catholic is, well, something else.
I understood that she was only seeking clarity for my witness as a Catholic, but unfortunately, such a distinction plays into the hands of non-Catholics who have hi jacked the term “Christian”. So here in the deep South you will find people who say, “I used to be Catholic, but now I’m Christian.” What they mean is that they have left the Catholic faith of their baptism and become Protestant. I heard another person say, “I really like nuns. I’d love to be a nun, if only there were Christian nuns!”
By saying that they are “Christian not Catholic.” Our Protestant neighbors perpetuate the anti-Catholic prejudice that abounds in America because the implication is that Catholics are not Christians. We’re not followers of Jesus Christ, but the devotees of a strange and dangerous cult. Indeed, when I was at Bob Jones University the Catholic Church was regularly referred to as a cult. Catholics were in the same category as Mormons and Moonies and Scientologists, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, the Catholic Church was not just a cult, it was the great grand daddy of all cults. It was mentioned in the Book of Revelation for goodness sake! There it was plain as day: the great harlot show sat astride the city of seven hills, whose princes wore robes of scarlet and purple, who drank the blood of the saints from golden goblets…”Why how can anyone avoid the conclusion that this is the great whore of Babylon the Church of Rome?” thundered Dr Bob.
The problem is that too many of the Protestant protestations about the Catholic Church still ring true. Some time after my older brother converted he called me on the phone and said, “I’ve got involved in the parish Bible study. You know how, in the Protestant church they always said, ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible, they don’t have any Bible knowledge…’?”
“Well, they were right.”
To the outsider the old complaints about the Catholic Church do seem to fit. It does still look like we worship statues, and when they see priests wearing fine robes and celebrating Mass with golden chalices they do think that we are an ancient cult.
“Whoa!” I can hear my faithful more traditionally minded readers chortle, “Are you saying we you actually approve of cheap pewter vessels polyester vestments and nasty modern church architecture? Father, what would your friend Mantilla the Hon say?”
No. I’m still much in favor of beautiful, traditional and reverent worship. What I’m digging at is that this is for those who are on the inside. Catholics should understand Catholic ritual. We should explain why we build beautiful churches, maintain fine worship and invest in vestments, vessels and art that is worthy. We should not be ashamed of our Catholic traditions and we should celebrate them with due pleasure and proper pride in the worthy worship we offer.
But along with this we need to also cultivate the primitive and primary aspects of the Christian faith. One of the reasons Pope Francis is so popular is because he expresses the simple message of the Christian gospel. He is the Vicar of Christ, so it is right that we should see in him the image of Jesus Christ alive in the world, and in his ministry he incarnates what the church should be in the world. He is the recapitulation of the Body of Christ in the world and by the power of the Holy Spirit he shows us who we should be and what we should be doing.
This is what I am learning from Pope Francis: to be Catholic, but also to be Christian. In other words, to be joyful in my expression of the basic gospel story. I want to be with the people and share their lives as the Pope calls us to. I want to see the gospel lived out not just talked out. I want that message to be vital, vibrant and victorious in the world today through the ministry of the church in the world today. The simple message of compassion and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and joy is the message of Christ Jesus and the message we are called to live out. If we did this consistently then there would be no question of whether we are Christian or a Catholic Cult. It would be obvious that we, as Catholics, were living out the gospel of Jesus Christ more faithfully than anyone else.
Where does that put the example of Pope Benedict, who was so different from Pope Francis? I have written before about the balance that both popes bring. If Francis is showing us the way to follow Jesus Christ in the path of St Francis, the Benedict still shows us how to follow Jesus Christ in the path of St Benedict. His way is one of beauty, tradition, scholarship, liturgy, contemplation, prayer and study. This way cannot be neglected in the church. It is just as important as Francis’ way.
Therefore, the balance of Benedict and Francis show us a way to be fully Catholic and fully Christian. In the world we live out the simple life of service, love and evangelization. In worship we live out the words of liturgy, prayer and the divine sacrifice. One fuels and fulfills the other, and vice versa. The two complement each other.
Therefore, when confronted with the question of whether we are Catholic or Christian we must say we are both. For ‘Catholic’ we mean that we fully embrace all the riches of Catholic tradition in worship, theology, dogma, moral teaching and devotions. For ‘Christian’ we mean a simple, heartfelt relationship with the living Lord and living out a life and witness of compassion, teaching, evangelizing and caring.
One or the other? No. Like St Therese cried I cry out, “I will have all!”