“It’s been a difficult year to be Catholic,” a friend said to me recently.
I felt her pain.
Controversy has abounded, to put it mildy: the HHS contraceptive mandate; tension between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; the coming-to-light of sexual abuse by priests during the tenure of Archbishop Mahoney of Los Angeles (in the midst of similar decades-long scandals).
All of this has been compounded by pretty relentless scrutiny of a pretty unpopular pope.
In the American media and in parts of American Catholicism, Benedict XVI is routinely labeled a conservative (and worse)–a rigid, humorless leader leading the Church backward in time, not forward.
(It says something about Americans’ impoverished political discourse when all we can think to call this pontiff, who is opposed to gay marriage but is also a virulent critic of laissez-faire capitalism and a staunch enviromentalist, is “conservative”).
And we’ve never quite been able to forgive him for not being like his predecessor. Charisma and compassion are not words that spring readily to mind when thinking of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict.
Morever, the missteps of his papacy, some of them egregious (like the speech at Regensburg in 2006), have not endeared him even to many who were predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Soundbite journalism can never fully and fairly chronicle the complex legacy of any world figure. For instance, as Carol Zeleski observed earlier this week,
With his distinctly nonfundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis; his sophisticated handling of recent trends in biblical criticism (most notably, though least noticed, his book “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life”); his role in the creation of the modern Catholic catechism; and his papal writings on faith, reason and love (beginning with his extraordinary first encyclical “God Is Love”), Pope Benedict has opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.
And as a priest friend said to me this week, in illness and frailty Pope John Paul II chose to remain in office as a witness to suffering; in resigning the office under similar personal circumstances, Pope Benedict XVI offers a witness of humility.
Yet can our media-saturated views of this controversial man allow us to see such nuance, such complexity?
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All of this matters to me in more than just an academic way.
When my friend made her remark a few days ago, I replied with: “It’s been a difficult year to be converting to Catholicism.”
Because that’s what I’m doing.
And as the questions have come (and as more will likely come), here’s pretty much all I’ve got:
I am at home in the mass.
I need the Church’s historic liturgy in my life: the familiarity of it, the poetry of it, the predictability of it, even the tedium of it. I am weary of the Protestant way of “engineered” worship.
I attend Saturday afternoon mass at the Catholic church in the town where I live, a community I’ve fallen in love with, a community that will soon welcome me into full communion at this year’s Easter Vigil. Of course it’s possible that I may someday move and not have St. Brendan Church to love. But the worship there – along with the gifted priest and the beautiful people – will have helped to make me at home in Catholic life and liturgy wherever else I might land. (I don’t think my first tradition, Methodism, or Protestantism generally, knows very much about how to do this).
Related to this is something else I’ve always been deeply moved by (and appreciative of) in Catholic worship: there’s no hovering or smothering when a visitor like me shows up at mass. In fact, it can sometimes feel “unfriendly” to someone used to the Protestant way of welcoming committees and strategic follow-up with newcomers. What I observe, however, even though I don’t think many Catholic laity would articulate it this way, is the sense that in the mass it is Christ who does the welcoming; the people’s task is to never interfere with that.
Of course there’s the big thing — the elephant in the room for those like me undergoing RCIA: how can you join such a messed up church, with its abusive priests, prohibition of women priests, bullying bishops, and all the rest?). Part of me would say, rather impatiently, show me a church that isn’t messed up. And part of me would like to say (as the poet Mary Karr did when she became Catholic from nothingness), and I’m paraphrasing: I’m not joining the pope’s team; I just love the worship and the people.
But I’m not sure I can do that.
I am, in some sense, joining the pope’s team (or rather I’ll be joining the new pope’s team). I don’t have to love everything he says and does, but I have to somehow see that I am not my own authority as a follower of Jesus. I know how this can be perceived and how, as a woman, I might be seen as the messed-up one, the deluded one: relinquishing my autonomy, my identity, etc.
But what I believe, and what I believe to be at the heart of a Catholic anthropology, is that genuine freedom is always exercised within limits, and limits are not confinements but are, rather, “inducements to fullness of relationships and meaning.”
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It’s been a difficult year to be Catholic. And to convert to Catholicism.
But I’m hoping and praying for grace–for the current Pope, for his successor, for myself, and for a Church bound up in controversy and crisis, that in all things it might bear witness to the way of suffering, the way of humility.
And in these ways my hope and my prayer is that the Catholic Church and the church catholic might be Christ’s welcoming, light-filled body in and for the world.