I mean, I could make it very easy if I wanted to. We’ve all slacked off when we know we’re not supposed to, and I’d be lying if I said I never got distracted during Mass or wondered why the person across the church from me keeps handing their screaming toddler Goldfish crackers, the loudest and messiest of Mass snacks.
Despite all of that — despite the getting distracted and not remembering all the books in the Bible and whatever else I’m supposed to know — being Catholic means it’s okay to not be perfect. Can you imagine what it would be like to be part of something perfect? It’d be exhausting trying to keep up.
What I love about being Catholic is that, despite my sins and failings and short attention span, the Church isn’t going to leave me behind. Is the physical Catholic Church here on earth perfect? Definitely not. It’s a human institution, taking on the weight and challenges of its members, learning and growing and striving toward heaven. We have a lot in common, me and the Catholic Church.
What’s incredible — mind-boggling, when I really think of it — is that no matter the earthly imperfections of the institution or of me as a member, Catholicism is not something just of this world. Jesus founded the Church in, what, 33 AD? — and millions of men and women have borne their own crosses to carry that same faith to me today.
Being part of any religion doesn’t mean that you automatically check every box of what you are supposed to be or do or know. There have definitely been struggles and questions while growing up Catholic, but I know that no matter how many times I fail, it’s a learning opportunity. And if I dig into it, I’ve found that the struggles and questions usually strengthen my faith.
At the end of the day, being Catholic means being human, and I wouldn’t trade all the growth I have experienced in the Church for anything.
It seems harmless, but the most irritating question anyone can ask me is, “How was your day?”
Staying at home with four kids, my daily emotions range from “I’m too exhausted to get out of bed” to “My kids are the most wonderful, brilliant people in the world!” to “GET THAT KID’S HANDS OUT OF THAT TOILET AND PUT HIS COAT ON!” The tone of my answer — and sometimes my whole day — swings completely with one toddler kiss or screaming tantrum. (Charming, right? My husband is so lucky.)
So when I walk into Mass, I’m a different person each time I approach the altar. I always feel I need God, but the way I need God is never the same. Luckily, God meets me in the Church in rich and varied ways that seem to recognize my emotion and either heal it or deepen it. The words and art and tradition of my Church are the result of the love of millions of people over hundreds of years. They surround me and embrace me.
Some days I need the beauty of the Church: the smell of incense, the ringing of the bells at the consecration, the glory of the light streaming through the stained glass, the choir chanting, the statues and paintings so lovingly created. Some days I need the readings. Though they are prescribed by the missal, they can feel as though the Holy Spirit has given them just to me on days when I need them most. Some days I need the homily, and the priest speaks on something that has been in my heart or on my mind. Some days I need the tradition: the ashes on the forehead, the blessing of the throats. It connects me to those who have gone before me.
Some days I need the quiet. Some days I need the community. Some days I need the saint whose feast day it is. Some days I need the Eucharist. To be honest, some days when my kids refuse to be confined to a pew and I’m hoisting one on a shoulder and chasing an escapee down the aisle, Mass can seem like a blur. But even then, I often find that a few words or even just a phrase from a prayer or a response or a reading will float around in my brain, providing me with some spiritual nourishment for the day.
And the richness of God through the Catholic Church meets my needs beyond the Mass. Some days I need God the Father: the powerful, protective, Creator. Some days I need God the Son: the humble one, the one who stood with the outcasts, the one who forgives. Some days I need God the Holy Spirit: the giver of gifts and talents, the one who inspires. Some days I need our holy Mother: the comforter, the tender friend, whispering my needs into the ear of her Son. Some days I need the saints, whose words resonate in me, or whose actions inspire me.
St. Augustine said, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The daily laughter, tears, and joys of my life make me want to lean on God, and I am Catholic because my faith and my Church provide ways for me to rest in God in a different way each day.
God has always been real to me. I’ve always had faith. Not the blind-submission-type of faith that gets so much attention in the media, but the type of faith that slowly develops through a relationship with God. The more steps I take in faith, the more I discover God revealing Himself to me, so the more I trust Him. And the more I trust Him, the more I discover Him revealing Himself to me.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t have reasons for believing in God (St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God for $500, Alex) or that I shut off my intellect where religion is concerned. In fact, faith is actually the source of my intense curiosity about God and a big part of why I decided to study theology and go into ministry.
I grew up Catholic. Most of the people I knew were Catholic. Some were good people. Some were not. Some helped me, and some hurt me. But I don’t think I ever considered the people around me and their behavior as a strong reason to be or not to be Catholic. Instead, I was always interested in what Catholicism meant for me and in getting to know God better.
This theological questioning wasn’t simply theoretical (although I certainly went in that direction at times). Instead, many of my questions and concerns were based on my personal experience of being intensely wounded and broken, as well as on my imperfections and mistakes. I knew that I was not who I should be — I was (and am) a sinner with a lot of emotional and psychological scars. I wanted to know what I could and should do about all that and, most importantly, how God was at work in the world and in my life.
Theological reflection starts with experience (spirituality) but applies tools (religion) to help understand that experience and grow from it. As I examined my experiences and brought my questions to the Catholic Church and considered her practices and teachings — sometimes pondering something on and off for years — I found that, even if I wasn’t originally disposed to agree with a Catholic understanding or practice, I invariably encountered an unknown depth of riches and wisdom that I couldn’t find elsewhere. These riches help me understand my faith and live my life better. They also equip and challenge me to be more like Christ — they allow me to experience deeper joy, peace, healing, and compassion for others, as well as many other blessings.
As a Catholic, I belong to a Church that believes that God calls us to nothing short of living with the same self-giving love of Jesus Christ in each and every thing we do, particularly as our actions relate to those who live on the margins of society and are most in need; a Church whose worship is built around a God who is so intimate with us that He became one of us, died for us, and unites us to Himself by giving us His Body and Blood to nourish us with the same life that overcame the grave; a Church that extends God’s mercy and forgiveness to even the most sinful person so long as he confesses his sins and is sorry he committed them; and a Church whose life and teachings have convinced me that it speaks the truth.
As an example of this, I want to refer to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite series of books. In The Silver Chair, the heroes of the story are put under a spell by the Queen of the Underworld in order to convince them that nothing but the underworld exists. One of the heroes, named Puddleglum, comes to his senses and confronts her in the nick of time:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
The world I’ve discovered through the Catholic Church is like that. I can’t imagine anything better. I’d still be on God’s side, even if there weren’t any God to lead it, and I’d still live as much like a Catholic as I could, even if there weren’t any Catholic Church. It seems fanatical, but it’s true — I am Catholic because Catholicism fits the world like a glove and raises it (and my experience of it) to new heights that I could never have imagined, but am absolutely delighted that I found.
I am still broken and sinful — as any of us are — and the world can often seem like a terrible place, but, as far as I can tell, the authentic practice and beliefs of the Catholic Church are God’s way of enlightening us and making us whole.