Oftentimes, when I wear one of my sorority sweatshirts or T-shirts, friends say, “You were in a sorority? I didn’t know that,” with a look of surprise. “Why are you surprised?” I ask. They reply, “You just don’t seem like that type.”
Fight it though we try, it’s hard to escape life without having stereotypes or preconceived notions about the groups we belong to. I am certainly not exempt, myself. Living in a large metropolis like Chicago, it’s easy to see someone on the train, learn where someone lives — or even what baseball team they cheer for — and not register some sort of thought. Everyone is, consciously or otherwise, asserting some piece of his or her identity, which is being processed by another. In that sense, I sometimes wonder if we ever truly leave the school cafeteria.
Another category in my life that attracts surprise is that I’m Catholic. This isn’t usually followed by, “You just don’t seem like that type.” More like a slow nod. And silence.
I don’t get offended. I tell myself I’ve hopefully dispelled some of the negative stereotypes about Catholicism. But, going back to the cafeteria, it’s often hard to be part of a group that isn’t the most popular and even lets you down. It’s difficult to be part of a faith that is countercultural and with which I sometimes disagree.
The whole situation begs the question, “Why am I still Catholic?”
I always fall back on four main reasons.
A Diverse Church
When it comes to diversity, Catholicism has it. Though I didn’t always know that. Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, I thought all parishes sported 1970s architecture, were predominantly Caucasian, and had festivals, a liturgical dance group and a school attached to them. When I grew older, I realized the Church truly cuts across all cultures.
Within Catholicism, there’s a wide variety of Catholics. From progressive to orthodox, even within our faith, we are diverse. While things can become quite heated (hello, Facebook) and the Magisterium tries to get everyone on the same page, I see our differences as positive. For a religion to resonate across the globe, there must be some genuine truth in it that speaks to the depth of our shared humanity. If millions of people with different backgrounds and political persuasions can come together around a faith, then there must be something about Catholicism that is unifying, not divisive, amidst its diverse expression.
The Jesuits and the Orders
I sometimes joke to my friends that I am a “Jesuette,” a Jesuit cheerleader. I have been cheering on the Jesuits ever since my time at Saint Louis University where they were integral in my faith and academic formation. One can’t neglect their approach to education, one I’ve appreciated in my own life, which presents a gamut of texts and encourages students to weigh them rationally. In college, poring over texts I would never have imagined existed, I felt like one of the kids in the cave of the Dead Poet’s Society. The Jesuits were my Robin Williams.
As much respect as I have for the order, I have even more respect for the individual Jesuits I’ve befriended. My former advisor is a Jesuit. I always tell him I refuse to call him by his first name, as so many do, because he has more than earned the title of Father, with his gentle, paternal nature. To my astonishment, the night before I had surgery shortly after my senior year, he called my home in Cincinnati: “How are you doing? Are you scared? If you are, that’s okay.”
Other orders have impressed me as well. The Ursulines were very important in my spiritual formation in high school, and I have a great deal of respect for many women religious. It is in the orders that I find the teaching body of the Church. They teach by example, on the ground, living lives of service.
Catholic Social Teaching
Whenever the Church makes news for a moral controversy or abuse cover-up, and I begin to feel discouraged by its leadership, I always go back to Catholic Social Teaching. It seems to be a sort of best-kept secret, living in the shadows of moral teaching on issues surrounding sexuality, which gets the most airtime. Themes like stewardship, preferential option for the poor, and dignity of the human person are concepts I hadn’t heard about until I was in high school. These took root and led me to make decisions like committing two years to a faith-based service program and wanting to live a life of service. Whenever I sit in church and listen to a drop-everything-and-mobilize letter from the hierarchy or a cautioning edict about voting before an election, both typically surrounding the same issues, I remember there are so many other letters the bishops have written that never reach the pulpit or the eye of the general public. It is in our lesser-publicized teachings where I find the strength to keep going.
I remember the moment I started believing in the mystery of the Eucharist. Do I really believe it’s the actual body and blood of Christ? It’s college. I’m outside my dorm in my ex-boyfriend’s car, and I’m saying just that. Being more of a philosopher than me, he gave me an analogy: “Say I have a pen, which on the outside looks blue but in fact writes red. What type of pen is it?” “Red,” I say. “Why?” he asks. “Because it writes red and the purpose of a pen color is how it writes.” “But it looks blue.” “But it writes red.” You get the point.
In that moment, I grew less concerned with whether or not what I was consuming in Communion was a bleeding piece of flesh or not (actually, I’m fine being spared of that sight) and more so about the fruit of consuming it. Do I believe the Body of Christ is able to transform someone’s life, give them strength, and push them to be a better Christian? Yes. Well, if that’s what receiving Communion gives to me every Sunday, then who am I to say it’s not the Body of Christ because it’s not oozing blood before my eyes?
At the end of the day, if I didn’t have any good reasons for remaining Catholic then it would be too much trouble to belong to begin with.
But no worries. Whenever I drop the C-bomb, and I don’t see the dinner party headed in a deep-conversation-about-why-I-am direction, I have a question ready to switch to a lighter mood.
“So, Cubs or White Sox?”