It's complicated. Its also beautiful.
I entered the Church as a 35-year-old convert from a mixed protestant background (Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian, and a lot of self-study of non-Christian faiths in high school) and from the moment of my Confirmation and first Eucharist, I never, ever looked back or considered leaving.
I learned early on in my experience with the RCIA process that I had been a seeker my whole life. Something had been missing, and I found that something in the Catholic Church. What I found in the Church confounded my Unitarian/agnostic stepfather, who kept asking me how I could be part of a church that wanted to tell me how to think. I finally helped him understand, at least partly, when I explained the faithful's call to cooperation with God to build the Kingdom on earth.
But that wasn't all. From the moment I joined the Church in 1987 to this day, I have found:
- Jesus Christ - the focus of everything. And not a Jesus for the sentimental, but a suffering servant king who offers himself to us and for us out of pure love in the sacrifice of every Mass, through the Eucharist we receive. A Jesus who calls us constantly into deeper relationship with him and his Father, with the help of the Spirit. A Jesus who offers to partner with us to carry our burdens, and who asks us to tell all we meet about his love and his invitation. This is the Jesus who calls us to be disciples and to make disciples - through his Church. I have known in this Church people who were true disciples - they made me who I am today.
- Ritual and Liturgy - as I have said before, when I encountered the Mass, I felt I had come home. The consistent ritual, the Liturgical Year - these had been missing from my previous experiences of church. In the rhythm of Sunday after Sunday around the cycle of the year, I found myself constantly renewed and refreshed. I will never forget my first experience of the beauty of Liturgy of the Hours at my own celebration of the Call to Continuing Conversion. In it, I have found refreshment and peace.
- Community and Solidarity - blessed from the beginning to have found a welcoming community of faith in St. James, Rockford, I have always found acceptance and fellowship among Catholics wherever I go. At national conferences, in small towns and large cities, on the internet - always, even when we have occasional disagreements over some of the details - I have found that once good Catholics know that you, too, realize what is really important, there is a great deal of acceptance. This acceptance crosses lines of gender, geography, race and economic status. Deep down, we all know we are members of one flock and have One Shepherd - and that we are all called to One Table. I have broken bread with people whose orientation toward the Church is far more traditional than mine - and enjoyed it. As one body, the Church is not "me and Jesus" - it is alway "us" - together. To me, that is the greatest treasure. As a protestant child, I learned a hymn "Tell me the Stories of Jesus." As an adult Catholic, I stand in the assembly at Mass and sing "Alleluia!" as I wait for the Gospel reader to tell US the stories of Jesus, which WE love to hear - and which Catholics all over the world are hearing that day as well.
- Call to Mission, Evangelization and Service - This is part of what really excites me. I am part of a 2,000-year-old mission to bring the Gospel and its values to the world. As the owner of some of Christ's hands and feet on earth, I have always felt I had a place in the mission, in large ways and small. Sometimes my call is to write, teach or sing about this. Sometimes I get to serve. (Just last week, I found myself in the middle of a hot parking lot helping to feed the poor from a mobile food pantry.)
- Dignity of Each Person - contrary to what the world thinks it knows about Catholics, we honor the life and of each human person (we just don't always accept every person's lifestyle). We are called to be voices for the voiceless - the poor, the powerless, the unborn, the disabled and the elderly - seeking justice and compassion for them in the name of Jesus Christ. Watching how our country has increasingly polarized into rich and poor, I speak out, and make a special personal effort to help the poor whenever I can.
- Work to do for Peace and Justice- though I will never have the courage of people like Martin Sheen, who has been arrested so many times for standing up against senseless violence and injustice, there is a part of me, baptized in the crucible of the Vietnam era, that jumps to attention when I see failures of justice. I want to put myself out there, to stand for the kind of world desired for us by a God who has as his goal, a time when our swords will become plowshares. However, all are not called to the same actions on behalf of this. I have found my call in how I vote and in how I teach and share with others ways we can walk in the paths God has asked.
- Consistent Ethic of Life - I have grown to understand that God is truly the giver of life and it is he who numbers our days. Any attempt by human beings to "play God" by choosing the day of our own or another's death is a violation of the desires of the God of Life. Being pro-life means we all have some role in the defense of life, each according to our circumstance and talents. I never waver on the message in my teaching or in my comments on current events about life issues.
- Eclectic Music and Inculturation - it's a big church. There is room for Gregorian chant, for traditional hymns in both Latin and the vernacular, for contemporary songs, and sometimes, even for rock and roll. There is room for ethnic and "world" music. Music with well-chosen texts, often based on scripture - the style doesn't matter - I can love it all - though like everyone, I have my preferences. There is room for the devotional practices of different immigrant groups and for the recovery of the lost practices of groups who were homogenized by the American "melting pot" of the past. There is room for the popular culture and for creativity and art - it all can find a place in our efforts to praise and glorify the God who created everything. And me, I love my bi-cultural parish - and cannot keep from singing to my God in one language or two, in traditional, modern Anglo, or Hispanic style.
- The Mystical Body AND the Institutional Church - one and the same, yet different. Often inconsistent. I firmly believe that Jesus Christ meant for the Church to exist. When the People of God gather at liturgy to praise and worship the Father in the Son, through the Spirit, we become the "real Church" - the Mystical Body of Christ. It is when we join in prayer, hear the Word and receive the Eucharist together that we are most ourselves. When we go forth, we are of one mind. However, once in the world, that can break down as we are pulled apart by forces from within and without. The Church as an institution has garnered many a black eye over its history, but we can love her anyway. Like Jesus the Catholic Church is fully divine and fully human - but unlike Jesus, it is not without sin and frailty. It has helped me over the years to remember that there is an ideal, mystical Church and a human, fallible church. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes, it seems like we should celebrate "Facepalm Sunday" - but we can love this Church anyway.
- The Holy Spirit and the Call to Share Spiritual Gifts - my most recent discovery about the Church is how through it, we are called to share the charisms the Holy Spirit has given each of us, for the good of the entire Body of Christ. Sure, I knew that, generically, but only recently have I discovered how that works in my life. Each of us has indeed been given certain gifts, but the community helps us discern how those gifts may be used for the good of others. One of the criteria in the Called and Gifted process for discerning a charism is that others have told you that when you do something, it bears fruit for them. Our gifts are not our own. They came from God and belong to God's community. This, above all, is for me one of the great rewards of being Catholic: I have a purpose. I belong. I know that who I am is part of something greater, it is not for me alone.
And THAT is why I am and will always be Catholic... in spite of all those moments that could bring on this: