Looking at the news, at our politics, even our traffic, everything seems brimming with rage and outrage, with pain and a demand that someone see it, someone hear the cry, someone do something to make it better. With the news that came out of Ireland recently, the beginnings of what we need to do became obvious if difficult. We need to stop pretending our faith is the same as all other religions. We need to stop trying to make our religion easy, digestible, and inoffensive to all.
Cultural Catholicism is the result of faith, or the relic of a lost one. It is not the faith itself. The traditions (little-t) of Catholicism are only traditions, if the source and summit which inspired them is not fully embraced. The vote in Ireland revealed this reality. A country defined for centuries by Catholicism remembers it only in a sentimental fashion, as an accessory or an accent. The land which produced Joyce’s commentary on the Church, “Here comes everybody,” no longer wants everyone to come, but instead wants to be just like everyone else. It wants to be with the cool kids’ table, approved of by everyone of fashion and modern thinking, and with this vote, so it is.
Yet, if we’re to be Catholic as we are called to be, we must know the world will not embrace us anymore than it did Christ. Christ worked miracles, He cured lepers, the blind, the lame. Christ fed the five thousand. Christ taught the beatitudes, to be merciful, to be peacemakers, to pray for one’s enemies and bless those who persecuted. They betrayed, denied, abandoned and crucified Him.
If we want Catholicism to permeate the culture, it must first permeate us. How? Everywhere we look, we see churches with missions, with service projects, with outreach programs. We see Catholic schools with blue ribbons and trophies and graduates with scholarships. We see that we’re doing a lot of “good” for the world in the world. It is insufficient. The poor will be with us always. The works must be done, because faith without works is dead, but it seems the Church (in America anyway), thought it could prove its goodness by their missions and outreaches and good works. It has not worked, it is not working, because good works are not the reason we assemble, they are not the reason we call ourselves Catholic. They are expressions of faith, not the faith itself. They did not ultimately win even all 10 healed lepers back or all Twelve Apostles. Christ’s miracles and good works, and our subsequent imitation of them by our actions, is not what wins hearts.
What wins hearts is an encounter with Christ which we allow to penetrate. What we’re called to do, is live in such a way as to spark by our lives, a response to the Holy Spirit, a divine curiosity about this person we know, this person who is God, Jesus. That means, we have to know Jesus first.
Who is this Jesus we claim to follow? Our God is a scandalous God, a God who came down and became human, fully human, with all of the grubbiness that being human and having a body implies. Our God ate. Our God wept. Our God bled. Why does that matter? It matters because we keep rendering our God as clean, as inoffensive, as gentle in all things, mellow in all things, and indifferent to all the things we’d rather not address. Our God is not an indifferent God. Our God is passionate. Our God loves us as we’ve never loved anyone. Our God is an outrageous lover, who knows us better than we wish to know ourselves, “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” and one who feels agony at our separation from Him.
It’s an outrageous claim to assert we know Him, we touch Him, we see Him, we consume Him. It also means, more will be asked of us for making that claim. It’s also scandalous to the world we assert such a thing, because it does mark our religion as fundamentally different as a result. It’s not theoretical, it’s not symbolic, it’s not philosophical. Jesus comes each and every time, and we profess his presence to be really real even though we don’t deserve it, either by our faith or our works no matter our faith or our works. At every Mass we assert and affirm that we believe the tiny host contains within it the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that He desires for us to take Him into our own bodies. Every Mass is a scandal, because we believe God desires that much intimacy, that much gritty closeness. We cannot merit this gift of God’s love and presence, we can only seek to do so by orienting as much of our lives and hearts and minds as possible as our will can muster, and asking forgiveness for all the times big and small, when our will fails.
That’s the difference. That’s the thing which makes our religion unlike all others. We do not worship a concept or a philosophy, or a God who was, and now waits far away for us to come, or for us to evolve into understanding, but we worship a God who is, and who is present, and who wants to be in communion with us, and who is available to us, 24/7 in adoration chapels, and every day in the Mass. Part of each of us knows this reality, that if we love Jesus, come to visit Him regularly, and consume Him, we will be changed as surely as the apostles were changed. We will seem odd to the world, and it will struggle with what we say and do, because it will both attract and challenge.
My daughter prays at every meal, “Oh Jesus, I offer you all that I think, do and say. Bless me and make me like you today.” She’s 12, but has said this prayer since she learned it at 7, and every time she says it, it still moves because it is a begging of God to take over her heart. It is a request to surrender. What I do know of God, is He always answers every prayer, and always enters the heart that seeks Him with everything to the extent the heart allows. Pray before the Eucharist, if not that prayer, then “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” God will enter and work within. The world needs us to attract and challenge it by showing it Christ through all we think do and say. So how do we begin? We begin where our faith diverges from all other faiths: at the Holy Eucharist. Make a promise to visit every day for 365 days, even if only for a minute each day.