Just a week ago, humbled by the chance, I took a solitary walk along the national Seashore in Cape Cod. Waves crashed onto a storm-battered shoreline ravaged by winter’s rage. Lacy froth licked the sand and a piercing wind turned raindrops into unforgiving pellets. A singular moment on a national beach, a collective far greater than self. As a Catholic, I know that same sense of a solitary path and a uniquely collective one. Hours and days later, with time to reflect and moments to consider the mundane and the profound, the duality makes deeper sense than I ever realized.
Catholicism has been scarred by scandal in recent years. The practices of the past have been found wanting if not downright unjust in the light of a world highly attuned to equality, justice, and the sanctity and respect for life. In every country, this corporate examination of conscience has torn open wounds and illusions, exposing layers of denial and daring that compounded one costly decision after another. History, a relentless taskmaster, reveals a pattern to that; every generation bears flaws and strengths within its context and so there is an ebb and tide to the reputation of the insitution that is borne shaped by the world embracing it. There is a calculated reality to the gap between the life of the institution and the faith of the individual. There is the collective life and the personal life of a Catholic that bears comparison to that walk along the beach.
Catholicism has housed, from the very outset, the flawed and the broken, the human beings we actually are. And from the very outset, it was housed culturally and ethnically by those who chose it or were born into it. It bears distinctively unique chacacteristics in each of its incarnations, and it was never free from the foibles and flaws of those who participated in it. There are those who inspire and those who scandalize; those who unite and those who divide, those who empower and those who devour. It is an institution, as all institutiions are, immersed in the business of humanity and the mulitple persepctives and choices of those who become involved and active in its nuturance and sustain its development. They are neither angels nor gods but human beings doing the best they can with what they have. And so history records failures and faults and shortcomings, and the next generation works to revise and re-engage and improve all while being so terribly human themselves.
This is not to minimize the spiritual life of the individual, the person aware of who they are and how they are, who finds that something deeper in the liturgy or the quiet, the teachings or a devotion or the celebration of a sacrament, where the individual can find a pace, a space, to enteraitn the idea that there is a God who is other than human and so much more than any or each of us. At the heart of the human experience, there is a core belief that there is something more than who we are to this life. And so we walk, solitary, through the phases of our lives. And when the time comes, we take steps and forays into new aspects of life and experience new purpose and open to new adventures. And when the time comes, we know for sure that we are not winging our way through the human journey on our own: there is Godm and there are so many of us simply searching and discovering. We walk along the beach together because it belongs to all of us, and we celebrate the solitary singularity of that because we trust that God loves each of us.