It was just before the final blessing, the last of the Sunday announcements. His words reverberated in the church; tears stung as he reassured wary parishioners that he wanted to keep things as normal as possible in spite of his upcoming radiation and chemo treatments. There was a wave of collective support, and the congregation sung even the last verse before following him down the main aisle.
There was an edge to her voice. “I consider myself a good Catholic. I made sure my kids got the sacraments. I have no use for the hypocrites and the liars behind the altar. Why would I go to church when you don’t know where that priest’s hands have been? I am not a sinner. How could I be? I have kept my sacred vows in marriage. Why do you think I am still married?” It was an illuminating moment: her faith and obligations were tied deeply to the key moments in her life experience, yet her understanding of faith was entirely separate from the experience of the hierarchical Church itself. Disturbed and angry, she spoke of the painful sense of being considered “less than” by the ordained and the practicing. And yet, there is an abiding sense of faith tied to something greater than self.
She was an immigrant, elderly, a volunteer at church who bemoaned the fact that none of the large brood of grandchildren were practicing Catholics. Not even the ones raised in Catholic homes or the ones who attended 16 years of Catholic education. She summed it up smartly. “They blame it on the scandal. Who gives a crap about that? Faith isn’t about the priests. It is between you and God. Who cares about the priests? That’s just an excuse for laziness, not wanting to give the time.”
It is all about perspectives on faith, on what is normal and what really matters. Each points to a depth of truth about Catholicism: it is alive and well in personal lives across the country. And it is changing, as it always has, in response to the reality of each time. There is nothing stagnant about faith or about the Church. But the temptation to believe in monolithic generalizations is real. Like other stereotypical thinking, those deprive us of the chance to understand that faith is alive and well, vital and real. The presence of God is visible in each life, real and well known. But hardly the same. And that is what makes Catholicism so relevant even in the twenty-first century.
There are as many pathways and sacred spaces as there are Catholics. And there is something of the glory and beauty of God in all that diversity and divergence. Because, essentially, it comes back to one thing: the very concept of a God who cares and guides and connects.
It is not about a God who promises an easy life, or comfort. Instead, it is about a God who walks together with us, side by side, through the vicissitudes of every life. That is the God of the mustard seed parable, the one who walked with the Apostles through the dusty streets of Nazareth, the one who celebrated the Passover Meal. And there, among friends, that promise of Presence was sealed through the institution of the Eucharist meal. And so it is that the seeds of faith find fruition in lives diverse and times scandalous and epochs controversial. The institution endures because the seeds belong to every soul and generate a new garden in every age.