Around a dozen girls, sporting the reliable Catholic school plaid, sat in a classroom tucked away in a side hallway on the third floor of an all-girls high school. During the fall of 2006 and into 2007, the room was filled with raucous, back-and-forth conversation every time the class met. We talked about the genocide in Darfur, homelessness in our city of Boston, the death penalty. Tough topics, but this was senior year theology at my high school: a yearlong class in social justice.
We read the work of Catholics who dedicate their lives to social justice work, watched Frontline documentaries, and studied the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching until they were basically second nature. When we weren’t in our classroom chairs, there was a community service requirement to fulfill, because the mission of the sisters who founded our school, the Sisters of St. Joseph, is to “love the dear neighbor without distinction.”
We didn’t always have the same ideas about how to help, or even who to help. One classmate sold t-shirts and donated the proceeds to a nonprofit. Another volunteered at a local food pantry. I helped out at a theater camp with a focus on building self-esteem in preteen girls. But whatever we did, it all came back to the idea that every life has inherent value and potential.
I’ve been Catholic since my baptism in November 1988, but attempting to live out what I learned during senior year high school theology is why I’m Catholic today.
For me, the heart of the Catholic Church, and Jesus’ message, is reaching out and helping others. Different messages and priorities might seem louder or more prominent, depending on who is talking, but my lived experience of being Catholic is one that aligns with the image of a welcoming Jesus — a man who sought out people who were different from him, who helped people who were otherwise overlooked.
There have been times when I’ve been embarrassed to be Catholic, especially with all that continues to come to light with the clergy abuse crisis. Sometimes, it feels like my experience of Catholicism might not exist anymore, and it definitely isn’t the one that gets attention. I’ve worried that people might assume the worst of me when they hear the worst of my Church. But then I remember those conversations in that third-floor classroom, and the group of women who went out into the world to bring justice to others, each in their own way. So I resolve to be that vision of Catholicism, to be representative of the Church at its best, not its worst.
One of my favorite church songs is called “The Servant Song,” and it includes these lyrics: “We are pilgrims on the journey, we are travellers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” That’s who I want to be for others in the world, and why I call myself Catholic.
I’m in Cambodia in the home of my friend, Rath, perched on the edge of the bed, which also serves as the couch, lounge, and chill area in the house. The TV blares Khmer music videos and the AC blasts slightly cooler air into the one-room home. Somehow the conversation has drifted to religion.
“Here in Cambodia people really like the Catholics,” comments Rath’s husband, Mony. I don’t think he knows I am Catholic, but he continues: “Unlike many of the other religions, they help you even if you are Buddhist. You don’t have to believe what they believe, and if you do become Catholic, they still let you participate in Cambodian Buddhist cultural traditions.”
Some of the other Christian religions won’t let you go to a funeral, he explains, such as the 100-day funeral ceremony — even when your parents die — because they think these ceremonies are pagan worship. “It really separates families because young people will join a different religion and they lose that connection with their parents,” he said. “That is not okay in our culture that values and respects parents and elders.”
This explanation, for me, is why I have remained Catholic for the past five years, despite every bad article in the press. When conversations turn to refined points of doctrine or obscure points about practice or questions about inclusion, I remember that the Church, as any institution, is more than the headlines and the leaders.
The Church is made of those people who reach out to those who are so often marginalized in our world, like the Cambodians about whom Mony was speaking. I try to think of the Church as he described it: Striving to be a culturally sensitive source of good.
Does it always succeed in meeting that standard? Of course not. It is made up of flawed humans, as is any institution, but it has the potential and has come a long way. Plus, it has the influence and the ability to be more than it currently is. But, even now, my Church is not so bad.
My Church is found in the congregations along the border opening their doors and wallets to those coming to the U.S. seeking safe haven. My Church is made up of the lay people, sisters, priests, and brothers who work in solidarity with those on the margins because they are our brothers and sisters, and that is what Jesus did. My Church cares about creation, human dignity, and the rights of workers. Despite the problems in the Church today, I stay for the hope and potential for the Church of tomorrow.
And I stay because I am simply too stubborn to give in to anyone who would try to make you think the Catholic Church should stand for anything other than what Mony described to me five years ago.