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.