In the early hours of morning, the young adult stood alone outside a towering church waiting for the hearse.  Slowly, cars pulled up and a small knot of family and friends joined her.  They lined up behind her mother’s casket, filed silently into the church, and the priest began.  He recognized the diversity of the gathered:  some Catholics, some not; some spiritual, some not; some familiar with the practice, most not.  In softly nuanced tones, he spoke of the love and loss that had brought the entire gathering together.  And he emphasized the central message of  Catholicism: love is at the heart of human experience.  Funerals are moments when love and its loss are intensely present.

The reality is that every person contributes to or diminishes the gift of love through words and actions.  Some have a great capacity to embrace others, to devote attention to others and in so doing,  empower and heal.  Some have the ability to enter into the suffering of others, to immerse self in the lives of others.  In so doing, they develop empathy and provide support.  Some are gifted with the strength to truly hear another; others touch lives with humor or a quick kind word.  There are innumerable ways to share the love that exists within each of us.

And there are so many times when each person is in need of such expressions of love and kindness.  There is an ebb and flow to the exchange that binds each to another.  And that is testimony to the mystery, to the uniqueness and the commonality among human beings.  Every individual makes a difference.

Funerals are a reminder of all that, of the years of exchange and interaction and the very importance of living a life of caring for others.  And for Catholics, the  funeral Mass affirms  all the human emotions of grief and nests the pain in hope and promise.  But the ritual welcomes all to experience that.  It is a reminder of finiteness and a message of hope.  Most of all, it is focused on the reality of human relationships and the mystery of love in human life.

At the conclusion of the service, the young woman greeted each participant with words of gratitude.  She was embraced by friends and family, held tight within the same circle of life that filled the church.  It was over and just beginning all at once.




Before a Shinto shrine in Kanazawa, Japan, a slim, elderly man bows deeply from the waist in reverence.  Before the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, spread in simple elegance over a magnanimous space, lie gardens designed to create a sense of harmony in nature, and in self.  And in the cavernous space of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, there is a quiet that beckons to what is deeper in humanity.  Every culture offers something beyond what is to offer tools for negotiating what is so very challenging in this life.  From the tiny synagogue in Taipei to the chapels nestled into Big Sur, there is evidence of the human search for transcendence over centuries.

There is the intellectual piece, carved out in classics like the Kabbala and Augustine’s City of God, the Torah and the New Testament.  These speak in volumes to some, raise questions for others and establish for the scholar what is needed for the soul.  And there are the personal stories, from mythology to today, that reflect lifetimes of search and discovery.  These relate to something else present in the human spirit and sometimes defy the academics with simplicity and purpose.  There are the artists who explore as each one can the magnificence and tragedies of the experiences to share them with others, give some new dimension that can be appreciated by another.  Every tradition, every culture, carries that sense within it.

There is a splendor to the spectacle of it, to the very diversity in it.  And while it is tempting to surrender to the differences among them  and search for absolutes, there are commonalities at the foundation of all that.  To be able to see and appreciate the uniqueness of what each is, finding the common ground is essential.  It is not so much about what is right but more about what is human and meaningful in the pursuit of life for each individual and family, what brings to birth in each a sense of the divine.

Ultimately, the vastness of the earth and the extent of its majesty in the spectacular nature of a sunrise or the hints of mountains in the distance, the rhythm of the waves upon a shore, are reminders of how very humbling it is to be human.  Nature speaks, and cultures shape the traditions and rituals, the stories and celebrations that enable and empower a genuine appreciation for life itself.

Catholicism with all its flaws and perceived limits is a home base for some.  And the liturgy, the breaking of the bread,  offers that moment of awareness that there is so much more to life. In the reverence and the ritual, there is a place for that sense of gratitude for existence, awe for experience, and appreciation for exposure to something greater than self.  To be an ordinary  Catholic echoes that same sense of reverence as the elderly man bowing deeply at the gate.  Each in their own way.  Each in their own culture.  Each finding significance in other.


New heart

There are countless ways to define diffeeences among people.  But to find the similarities requires vision and the capacity to see self as realistically as possible.   The promise of a new heart, a new spirit, articulated in Scripture does not confine “new” to youth.

“New”  happens to everyone and age or circumstance does not matter. “New” means being able to identify where openness and change are needed.  And then it means choosing the hard work of becoming a better person.

In essence, this means taking the time everyday to evaluate.  There are so many standards or examples to choose from. It is possible to look at Benedict ‘s big three: self-importance, lust, greed. Others might feel more comfortable with Teresa of Avila’s  “you are the hands and heart of Christ”…and the Ten Commandments will do the job for others.  The tools are there: what is necessary is their use.

In times of transition, it is easier to drop the rituals which provide the structure of a day.   Work can be so anxiety producing that the balance can be hard to find.  Most of all, the discipline of remembering the process of renewing each day displays the commitment that enhances the life of a Catholic.  The promise of the new heart can be the end-product.



New Growth

It is undeniable that Catholicism has weathered centuries of scandals which are often followed by a renewal of purpose and redefinition of focus.  From the outset, sharing belief in the Jesus of scripture has brought the conflict inevitable to the interaction of humans.   There was the Council of Nicea and the response to the Reformation.   In addition,  all the stress of organization and re-defining the message for each succeeding generation has presented the tension between tradition and change.  The Catholic Church is  still here after the repeated sexual scandals, charges of corruption, and financial crises. Remarkably,  there are the signs of grass roots vitality.

For today’s pessimistic, doubtful and cynical Catholics, the sight of those tender hopeful shoots of change can be obscured by layers of justified anger, intellectual frustration and  moral outrage.  Dismissing Catholicism as a viable lifestyle choice is beyond tempting and simply entirely possible.  That choice  ignores the height and depth, the breadth and scope of what Catholicism offers  and the possibilities offered by what is new in Catholicism.   There are young college grads entering missionary ministry on college campuses; young mothers in prayer groups and elderly parishioners embracing new ministries.  There are lay contemplatives and parish communities nurturing traditions like the rosary and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

These are not  formatted in traditional patterns of previous generations or organizations.  There is lay leadership, and there are new groups emerging to accommodate and nurture this movement of the spirit.  There is a tenderness to it, and a sense of purpose and conviction, a fidelity in individual lives to an age-old message which is still relevant in this millennium.   Just as Francis and Clare developed a movement which had relevance in their  time and re-birthed the wealth of the Christian message, there are individual persons attentive to the same purpose in this time.

The uniqueness of each person’s experience belongs in the realm of Catholicism just as the richness and the challenges of community living hone personal habits and behaviors.    Catholicism is as provocative now as it was in the age of Francis and the desert fathers.  It calls something from a person; those responses are fraught with meaning for self and others.  It points out that life is intrinsically difficult, but there are ways to navigate it that produce good for self and for others, that touches the best of what is human and multiplies the strength and courage that humans are so capable of.  The signs are here; the possibilities are endless.















Becoming better

Catholicism is a vast complexity of relationships and networks, the histories and memories and organizations and institutions.  It has a facade complicated by centuries of searching and hardened to storms of controversy.  But for an ordinary person, immersed in a dominant secular culture, there is simply the matter of living.  It is about how life is managed, how relationships are constructed, which values are chosen, and ultimately what happens within an individual and how that one lives with many.  Catholicism invites each to more and actually provides equipment, tools, for the journey.

Contemporary news coverage does  not highlight it, but Catholicism  is an invitation to reflect on life and how to live it.  It provides a path and a series of possibilities.    It opens the door to consideration of reality with startling simplicity.  Prayer is about far more than stagnant repetition.  Something like the words of the Act Of Contrition are humble acknowledgment of the ability to tell right from wrong, acceptance of personal responsibility and a recognition of role within a group or community.  To say those words means processing what happened during the day, looking at what was consistent with beliefs and values and what was not.  That quiet reflection means developing a contemplative appreciation for all that life offers.  It is reinforcing maybe even sustaining, the idea that what we do and say matters.  It is an active expression of the Pauline point that “when I am powerless, then I am strong.”

That  same sense is present in the start of the liturgy: The Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy”  is the spoken word recognizing that there is right and wrong, and that navigating life can be a minefield.  Help is needed, and help is provided.  The words themselves testify to agency and need, self-confidence and the unpredictability of life.  There is a way in which one can lend and borrow strength, find pathways where none seemed visible.   Here, too, there is a rich depth to options:  Mass can be a daily or weekly experience or holiday expression.   Choices abound and transcend perceptions about requirements; possibilities for personal growth actually provide some sense of purpose.  Hearing those words in a communal setting enable a person to define self in relation to others while simultaneously considering how to become better.  Ultimately, it is all about becoming a better person.

Then there  is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the private confidence of challenges unique to a person yet impacting a community.  Here is a confrontation with the very real personal decisions that shape behaviors. There is plenty of space to recognize what works, and even more to be brave enough to state what is not working.  Reconciliation is about awrestling with social and personal standards and continually nurturing  the desire to become a better person.  It is not about self-abnegation or masochistic analysis; instead, it is about finding the freedom to move forward and to live better.

Catholicism does not speak to everyone or satisfy the cultural and ethnic needs of all groups.  It does, however, open possibilities to all.  Daring to look beyond the stereotypes and even the headlines opens up a panorama of possibilities.  In so many  ways, over so many centuries, Catholicism has offered very ordinary people a very extraordinary chance to know self and others in a most realistic way and to discover ways to make the world a better place.   After all, that is what it is all about.