My friend recently asked me in an email conversation why I stay in the Catholic Church. “If that sounds confrontational, it’s not,” he wrote in his email. “At least not yet. I am genuinely curious.”
My friend was raised Catholic but is not currently a practicing member of any religion. He credits the Jesuits with saving his life in high school, and he went to Georgetown University for undergrad and married a Catholic woman he met there. They now have four children. His wife is still a practicing Catholic and brings the younger kids to Mass and religious education. My husband Bill and I are godparents to their third child.
My friend’s question is a fair one. He’s not asking why I’m Christian or questioning my faith in God; he’s asking me why I belong to a religion that has some elements with which he knows I disagree.
My friend’s question is a fair one. He’s not asking why I’m Christian or questioning my faith in God; he’s asking me why I belong to a religion that has some elements with which he knows I disagree.Advertisement
He knows, for example, that I believe the church should ordain married people of both genders, along with men and women who choose celibacy. He knows I believe the question of birth control and family planning is complex and should not be simplified into a one-size-fits-all teaching. He knows that because Bill and I have adopted from the U.S. foster care system, we have a depth of understanding of the ramifications of all types of child abuse.
Yet we have chosen to stay with a church whose leaders failed to protect children from the most egregious of abuse. He knows I hold dear our gay friends and colleagues—that I believe they should be as welcome at the eucharistic table as they are at our own dining room table.
And yet I’m Catholic. Passionately Catholic. And I could no more change to another Christian religion than I could peel off my skin and exchange it for a different tone with a better hue.
Why am I Catholic? I may not embrace or even agree with all the teachings of the church, but I believe in all the sacraments. I believe in God’s grace working through them. I’ve felt the grace; I’ve seen it.
When each one of my children was baptized, the grace washed over the whole family—connecting our new little child to us, as parents and their first teachers, back to their grandparents, and to the grace of their great grandparents. Baptism, our first gift of faith to our children, a tidal welcome into life eternal.
I’ve received communion and have been grateful for the grace that carried me through a difficult relationship. I know it was eucharistic grace that allowed me to be able to reach beyond the angry words I wanted to say to a difficult person, to the better words I needed to say to begin to heal the relationship.
I’ve felt the grace present in the sacrament of reconciliation. I’ve seen my children leave the church after going to reconciliation feeling more peaceful, acting more loving, trying harder to be who they are called to be. Not leaving the church perfect, by any means—none of us do—but coming out of the sacrament, still imperfect, but full of grace. I remember Liam running around the parking lot of the church when he was about 8, after his first reconciliation, yelling, “I feel so light!” I have felt that lightness, too. It is grace.
It is marriage where I’ve probably felt sacramental grace most strongly. Bill and I continue to turn to our vows, to our promise to God, to each other. I’ve seen the grace in my parents’ 50-year marriage—two people with completely different personalities who bring out the best in one another. I see the same grace in the marriages of my friends. One friend, whose husband made a hurtful choice, responded by upping her prayer, turning to her husband, and recognizing not only her own pain, but his. She allowed his poor choice to propel them together more in search of God, rather than let his behavior be a reason to drift apart. I watched their grace, and it made me weep.
Some sacraments seem under-utilized. We do not need to reserve the sacrament of the sick for the dying. Any serious problem—mental, physical, emotional—can be a reason to receive the sacrament. I asked that my daughter Jamie be anointed when she was 1—not because she seemed sick, but because I knew of her past history before she came to us as a foster child. I knew healing was needed. I asked for it. I felt the grace. I feel it now. In 14-year-old Jamie’s exuberant presence is God’s grace.
And then there’s ordination. God’s profound grace. Some of the most influential, inspirational people Bill and I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and listening to are (or were) priests. These amazing people, in their homilies and in the way they live (or lived) their lives, inspired the decisions we have made and have deepened our own faith journey. Holy orders is a beautiful, grace-filled sacrament. It’s just not expansive enough—we could have even more grace-filled people leading our church.
And speaking of grace-filled leaders, what about those sisters? I’m Catholic because I stand in awe of the strong, independent, creative women so often at the helm of our Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service agencies. Yes, many of them are retired now, and fewer women are entering orders, mostly because Catholic women today have so many more options than young women did decades ago. These sisters were ahead of their time as leaders. In choosing to forego marriage and family, they were able to experience the greater world in a way uncommon to many women. And in doing so, they lifted us all.
I couldn’t say all this to my friend in my email, because the email came in at work, and I didn’t have time to respond. But I can say it now. I can explain that I stay in the Catholic Church because of God’s grace present in the sacraments. I have seen how this has led to prayer, service, and goodness in the world. This grace is present in Catholic social teaching, a beautiful set of letters and documents about how we are called to serve our world in a very concrete and practical way.
I am part of the Catholic Church because I see God’s people, nourished by the sacraments, anointed with oil, splashed with the water of baptism, serving God in great numbers. They teach in schools, work for change, bring about good in the public and private sector. They house refugees and give food and shelter to the needy. They bandage the hurt and the broken, give medicine to the ill, and visit those in prison. They speak out against injustice. I see them, and I strive to use my God-given grace as well as they do. That’s why I’m Catholic.
This article also appears in the January 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 1, pages 29–30).