UPDATE – When I write, “I’ve also found error,” I am not referring to error in the Church’s doctrine and teaching but rather error in teaching and living the faith. I expect to find that because the Catholic Church is bursting with sinners just like every other place where humans congregate.
A new Pew Study has Catholic bloggers writing about why they are still Catholic. Elizabeth Scalia invited Catholic bloggers to share why they remain Catholic. Of course, it never occurred to me that being Catholic was something I could just leave off like giving up wheat because it exacerbates the inflammation in my small bowel. Occasionally I long for bread (mostly to have something to slather with butter). But bread was never something I pointed to and said, “That’s who I am.” Catholicism does define me even though the minister tried to knock it out of me.
I have no memory of a time when Christ was not absolutely real to me. I have no memory of a time when I wasn’t Catholic. After my parents died, when being Catholic was a terrible crime, I clung to my faith. I kept a small, children’s missal and a used copy of “The Song of Bernadette” hidden away. They sustained me from five until ten when I was old enough to sneak out of the house and go to Mass.
The summer after the minister’s first wife died, we were sent to a Catholic day camp. Finally I saw Jesus held in the priest’s hand as I rested in the quiet emptiness of the church while the other children played outside. The priest did not allow me to receive Him but my eyes and heart devoured the answer to my unspeakably deep longing. I was starving for Him.
As a child, I saw that the minister’s faith held much good. There were many wonderful people. Some were kinder than many Catholics have been. Certainly, God gave me many gifts through them: the joy of singing from my toes, the experience that sometimes worship includes an “Amen!”, swaying, a raised arm, and copious tears. Most of all, I gained a deep, abiding love of Scripture.
Yet service after service, I sat in a pew and stared at the empty table. It ought not be empty: “This Do In Remembrance of Me.” “This” was so rarely done. And it was only a symbol. (I couldn’t find symbol in the Bible only, “This is…”) Yet there were rules. When some of the unbaptized children ate a bit of cracker or took a tiny glass of grape juice, the minister shouted and behaved as if they had done something horrible. He blamed himself for taking us to the communion service; he had never blamed himself before. All of the children in the house were baptized by month’s end. He even re-baptized me (my baptism in infancy didn’t count). But if “This” was just a symbol, why behave as if “This” was so vitally important?
Eight months after I began university, I was confirmed. When I encountered scandalous catechesis and behaviour, I fled to find the Catholic Church, stumbled into an Anglican parish, and by the time I discovered it wasn’t Catholic, had already begun an inquirer’s course to be received. I had three questions for the curate who taught us:
“What is the Eucharist?” I asked one Sunday.
“It’s the Body and Blood of Christ.”
“That’s okay,” I told my Friend. A few minutes later, I inquired, “Who is the pope?”
“He’s the bishop of Rome, the first among equals,” the curate responded.
“That seems okay,” I mutely told my Friend. As we left the room, I asked the curate one final question, “May I continue believing what I already believe?”
“Of course,” he told me a surprised shrillness in his voice.
“That’s okay too,” I told my Friend. “I can’t stop being Catholic.” (from “Loved As If,” Chapter 5)
In the Anglican Communion, I found Sodalities, perpetual adoration, the Stations of the Cross, Cursillo and other experiences that encouraged me to believe I had found real Catholicism. But priests fell asleep during my confessions. I began recycling my the greatest hits to keep them awake. At one point, I considered making up a few sins but then decided that would be lying. Only one priest listened and helped me work on my pride but he was miles away; I could only see him on rare occasions. I began to wonder what Anglicans considered sin. Sometimes, sin seemed no more than bad taste or being odd.
And then there was the branch explanation. Anglo-Catholics consider themselves one branch of the Catholic Church. But why is there is no communion between the branches? At what point does lack of communion mean a branch is severed? When does lost contact with the source of nourishment cause starvation?
Finally, I began studies for a master’s degree in theology and soon realized I was learning to comment on religion and faith but not coming to know and love God better. Though I love studying, there seemed little purpose in studies that would only fit me to analyze when I hungered to be more like Christ.
Often after Mass, I’d walk the streets of New York telling my Friend, “I must return to the Catholic Church, but how? Where do I go?” One day, the rector of my parish used the name of Jesus. I realized I had not heard him say “Jesus” in six months except when reading Scripture or reciting existing prayers. That realization, more than anything else, relaxed my grip and when God pulled me kicking and screaming from the Anglican Communion, my struggles were less than they might have been. I knew, even if it was filled with the same errors that had sent me fleeing, I’d only reach holiness if I went back to the Catholic Church.
At a new job, I became friends with a man whose Catholic faith was as foundational as mine. I didn’t know there were other people like me. He was crazy and fun. One day I told my Friend, “If there’s a place in the Church for someone as crazy as him, there must be a place for me. I’m at least as crazy as he is.” A few weeks later, I made a retreat, realized I was old enough to ignore or even shout back at those who tried to ply me with lies, confessed, and returned to the Church.
That was nearly eleven years ago. Since my return, I’ve found orthodoxy as well as everything else I sought. I’ve also found error, haughtiness (including my own), and bad catechesis. One of the things I learned on my detour through the Anglican Communion is that sin exists wherever there are human beings. To avoid sin, to be with people who are truly faithful, I must to leave earth and myself too.
But now the table is filled every day. Jesus is here in tangible form. And I so need Him to be tangible. Hunger exists to be fed and I have an immense hunger for Jesus, for Him to do exactly what He says He does, make Himself present again when we do what He did on Maundy Thursday.
I’ve found confessors who take my small sins as seriously as my whopping ones. And a great, great cloud of witnesses surrounds me and goes before me, along with me (I’m one of them). We are all trying reach heaven, no matter how difficult the journey; some have already made it. “Ultreya!” we cry out to each other. “Forward! Continue!” That cloud of witnesses, that community has brought healing I never hoped to find this side of heaven.
The orphaned waif who lost everything has found identity and family in Christ and in His Church. They go together. This is where I always find my Beloved. This is where I feast on His Body and Blood. This is where I am home because Jesus is truth and He is here. Non-Catholic Christians reach for the same salvation I do and may get into heaven before me, but because the Catholic Church is home, it’s also my best shot for holiness. After much striving and difficulty, I found myself on a solid rock that Christ chose. That is the greatest gift my parents gave me before their deaths. Even when I fled the Church it was to go in search of the Church. Where else would I go?