|Date:||January 26-27, 2008, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time , Cycle A|
My sister gave me Sr. Joan Chittister's book In Search of Belief for Christmas. It is a very thought provoking book, especially as we explore the Creed this year in our Generations of Faith program. One of the stories Sr. Joan tells in the book is of the time she was preparing for Confirmation back in the pre Vatican II days; the parish priest came to one of their final classes to quiz the class on their faith. Things were going along smoothly as he asked them questions on the many topics they had been prepared for. Then he asked them a question they had not been prepared for, "Why are you Catholic?" Now I am not going to ask any of you to answer that question out loud but I would invite you to answer it silently.
After a long silence, one youngster offered up, "Because I believe in Christ?" The priest shook his head no. Another offered, "Because it is the one, true Church?" The priest again shook his head no. "Because I want to go to heaven?" No. One after the other the priest rejected the answers the students came up with, all of them based on the information they had studied in preparing for Confirmation. Finally Joan timidly suggested, "Because I was born Catholic!"
"Yes, " said the priest, "All of you are Catholic because you were born Catholic." He then proceeded to urge them to look at their upcoming Confirmation as the start of a life long process of choosing to be Catholic through the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, for most of us, that is the real reason that we are Cath0lic. We were born Catholic and have never really gone through any deep soul searching process of deciding whether to remain Catholic.
Today's Gospel story of Jesus calling his first disciples stands in stark contrast to the reality that most of the Catholics in this parish, probably in this archdiocese, are Catholic because we were born Catholic. Why were Peter and Andrew and John and James disciples? It certainly was not because they were born that way. John and James and Andrew and Peter were disciples because of a personal encounter with Christ, who called them personally to follow him.
So we have two examples of how someone can be a disciple: being born into it, and being called personally by Christ. Which do you think makes for the more dedicated disciple? I would suggest that most of us would say that being called personally. The good news is that being born a Catholic does not mean that you are not called personally. In fact, everyone who is Catholic is called personally by Christ to follow him. That call is not a one time thing; we need to hear it and respond to it over and over again, in ever deepening relationship throughout our life.
Being Catholic is not about accepting a set of rules, or believing a list of dogmas, or acting in certain ways. In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI says that Christianity is not "the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." (n.1 )
Does that mean that somehow everyone of us needs to experience some kind of mystical encounter with Christ, to hear our personal call? Not really. While mystical experiences are something that anyone can strive for and attain, that is not the normal way we encounter Christ. For most of us in this time and this place of the Church, the parish is that place where people encounter Christ. How this works is both a deep mystery and a very clear example of the working of the Holy Spirit.
Notice in what I have said above about why we are Catholic, I have carefully said for "most of us" it is because we were born that way. I say that very deliberately because there are those among us who were not born Catholic but who chose to become Catholic as adults. Last year over 500 adults were initiated into the Catholic church in this Boston Archdiocese alone. I expect a similar number will be initiated here this year. And that is just one of more than 200 diocese in the US.
We are blessed as a parish to have someone in our midst who will be one of those becoming Catholic at the Easter Vigil. Today we are anointing Jennifer Cunningham with the Oil of Catechumens as she prepares for her initiation as a Catholic through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist here at St. Isidore's on March 22. On the first Sunday of Lent, we will send Jennifer off to the Cathedral to be enrolled in the book of the Elect as she enters the final stages of her journey. In fact, as those of you who participate in our Generations of Faith sessions know, Lent is a period of preparation for the whole church to be worthy to receive these new members into her community.
We in this Archdiocese have gone through some tough times over the past 5 or 6 years. In this parish we have experienced the pain of closure and the joy at its reprieve. We have a lot more work to do to reshape how parish life will flourish in the coming decades as the Archdiocese embarks on an intense period of reflection on how to organize itself in the face of declining numbers of priests and active parishioners.
However those reflections are organized and carried out, in the end the question that has to be answered both theologically and practically is: how does this parish serve as a place, an event, where people within the parish community and without, encounter the living Christ? If this is not the reality then there is no real parish here.
I would pray that as we accompany Jennifer on her journey to discipleship during this upcoming Lenten season, that each of us ponder that question, "Why am I Catholic?" very seriously and very personally. If we do that, I am confident that the Holy Spirit will guide us surely and safely from an answer of "Because I was born Catholic" to an ever deepening response of "Because I have encountered the living Christ, and he has called me to follow him."