Celebrating Mass yesterday I had a sudden insight on why I love the Catholic Church so much. It’s simply because the Church is Catholic. It’s universal. It’s not a sect.
I was actually thinking about some of the people in the church who, for one reason or another drive me crazy. It may be some wild eyed radical traditionalist or an equally wild eyed radical progressive. It might be a lazy, lapsed Catholic or one of those best Catholics in the whole wide world who are not only super pious, but super self righteous with it. It might be some loony liberal theologian or some loony conservative conspiracy theorist. It might be even more extreme–a semi-sedevacantist who launches a crusade to “Recognize and Resist!” or a campaigner for women’s ordination, gay marriage and earth mother worship on the fringes of Peruvian paganism.
Then there are all those who are not necessarily weird extremists, but I just don’t connect with them. Their world view, life experience, education and social class are different than mine. We have nothing in common. Add to that all the Catholics from around the world with whom I have little to link to: their culture and customs are so alien to mine that I have no way to connect to them except through the church and the sacraments that we share. Whether they are Nigerian or Norwegian, Amazonian or Austrian, Vietnamese or Viennese we not only speak different languages, we come from different worlds. But we’re all still in the Catholic Church.
And they’re all my brothers and sisters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all gooey in some sentimental way about the brotherhood of man and how we are all climbing the same mountain but by different paths. I’m not espousing some sort of wishy washy universalism that teaches that we are all saved and everybody belongs to the Catholic Church if only they realized it. Neither do I wish to turn a blind eye to the false teaching, superstition, corruption, immorality, hypocrisy, stupidity and incompetence in the church.
I’m simply sitting in this big tent and wondering at it and thanking God for it. Is it a big tent? Yep. It’s the kind of big tent I went to as a kid to see the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was a wild act with dangerous animals, ridiculous clowns, music, popcorn, dancing bears and trapeze artists flying through the air. Sometimes that’s what the Catholic Church feels like. There’s so much going on in this three ring circus you can’t take it all in.
Is it a mess? Sure. Is there conflict, quarreling and fighting? Yep. Do we often misunderstand one another and blame the other guy? Sadly so. Is the church full of sinners as well as saints? I seem to remember a verse about the Son of Man coming for the sick not those who are well. The fact is, the wheat and the weeds grow together and when the disciples were all hot and ready to weed that garden Jesus told them to just leave it alone and all would be sorted at the harvest.
Why was I thanking God for this Catholic Church? Because in all the mess I’m reminded that I’m part of the mess, and this whole universal thing we call the Catholic Church is bigger than me. It’s not my church. It’s Christ’s church. He’s in charge not me. If the church is not always to my liking maybe it’s because I should change.
Furthermore, when I really stop and think, I realize I might actually have something to learn from the people I dislike or with whom I disagree. They might still be wrong, but maybe, just maybe they can teach me something. Does this group worship in a way that bugs me? It’s okay. There’s nothing much I can do about it anyway. Maybe I should relax and try to understand what they see in their banal music and brutal buildings. Does that group have customs and beliefs that don’t jive with what I think the Catholic faith should be? What can I do about it except try to teach the fullness of the truth in whatever way I can with what gifts I have.
Are these Catholics over here terribly catechized? Is their faith muddled up with New Age goofiness, sentimentality and superstition? Are that bunch of Catholics over there not only ignorant, but obstinately resistant to any real catechesis? Is that other group over there with their foreign customs, indigenous religious practices sailing too close to heterodoxy and downright paganism or Protestantism or some other “ism”? Yep, but we’re in this mess together and that is part of being Catholic. It might seem chaotic, but the God I worship is good at bringing creation out of chaos.
I thank God for this Catholic Church because it means I am not in a sect of my own choice or my own making. I’d hate that. I’d hate being part of some tribe where everybody is right all the time. I can remember after I became a Catholic some snooty Church of England lady said rather triumphantly, “Well now you’re a Catholic do you like the Catholic Church?”
I answered, “No. If I was joining a church I liked I’d still be an Anglican. You have all the nice churches, nice people, nice cathedrals and you have really nice tea parties with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. I didn’t join the Catholic Church because I liked it. I joined it because it’s the true church.”
It’s the true church because it’s not a sect and every other Christian group–whether it is mainstream Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist–is a sect. It’s a group you join (or remain in) because you want to. It’s a tribe that suits you and you chose it because you liked it. At heart they are all sects just as much as the Mount Pisgah Independent Bible Believing Snake Handling Churchagod of the Four Square Gospel with Pastor Rambunctious is a sect.
Did I say the church is a big tent? Maybe it’s more like one of those patchwork quilts the Amish ladies make. They collect up all the scraps and remnants of cloth from all over the place–here a bit of seersucker, there a grab bag of felt, tweed and khaki. Here some cut off denim. There a scrap from an old suit, a flowery dress or an old gingham tablecloth. They take it all, cut the pieces down to size and stitch them together into something beautiful.
So I thank God for the heretics and sinners. I thank God for the superstitious and sentimental, the wacky liberals and the kooky conservatives.
I’m a scrap, a cast off, an old piece of rag like the rest of them, and maybe just maybe like some old Amish lady, the Blessed Virgin will eventually cut us down to size and stitch us all together.