We were standing in the middle of high school cafeteria overflowing with teenage girls on a noisy weekday lunch period, a Doctor of Divinity and a social studies teacher. It was Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Amid all the chaos, the Doctor recounted a bit of Francis’ story: rejecting his father, stripping naked in church, and then she stopped. “Not exactly rational behavior” she noted.
And there it was again: the juxtaposition of human frailty and forgiveness, weakness and strength, extremism and mainstream choices. Francis’ life overflows with lessons for the ordinary person: his experiences and relationships, questions and choices are rooted in historical context yet mirror so much of contemporary experience.
That proximity of human failure, the reality of the need for mercy and for forgiveness, the impact of choices and decisions….all that is visible in so many of the stories, the narratives that animate Catholic tradition. Those remembrances told and re-told over centuries weave warm tapestries that embrace all the varied elements and facets of human experience. Historical contexts shift, but the human journey continues. Catholicism offers possibilities, reference points, even inspiration at times in the living out of the human journey.
There are thousands of such stories, and each reminds us that no one of us is alone in grappling with the mystery of relationships, the challenges of problem-solving, the definition of purpose. Being immersed in life itself is difficult at best, and the stories like Francis’ are reminders of that. Alongside that is a second and vivid truth: the individual story of each person does matter. Even now. It matters what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, who we choose to become and to be members of the human family and global community.
The stories of Catholicism, of individuals frail and determined, scorned and broken, beloved and forgiven, are worth exploration and reflection. They create a home, a context, for 21st century experiences, for grappling with doubt, uncertainty, tragedy and hopes and dreams.
Faith is a term that defies dictionary strictures and animates so much human experience. It has sharp edges for some; goading memories for others. It is also lived out in private, daily choices and decisions thousands of times a day. Faith is not about the magisterium of the Church or even about the institutional structures. History points to both the failures and resilience of each of those, and that history reveals much more. Faith does not erase or resolve human frailty and failure. But it does offer the opportunity for forgiveness, the chance to grapple with fault and wrongs and process experiences with a keen focus on reality. Faith offers the chance to forgive self and others and to strive to become a better person. Faith recognizes that there are realities beyond personal control and coping with those means grappling with challenge. Faith accepts that life is difficult at best and faith offers shelter, harbor and hope.
There are innumerable stories of the human person, experience and journey in Catholic tradition, and each is based on individual human beings and his or her challenges, choices and changes. Within all that, the experience of fragility and forgiveness become part of the faith story and can offer a sense of home for those who search.