I’m Italian. When this fact comes up, and people respond, “Ohhhh, you’re Italian?” I’m never quite sure what will follow. But usually, it’s something like, “Your mom must be a great cook!” What can I say? It’s true. She makes hundreds of meatballs on her meatball-making day, and they are a-mazing. Generally, the reactions I get to being Italian are favorable, a far cry from what Italian immigrants faced in the past, during times wrought with ethnic discrimination.
However, there are also parts of my identity that are important to me, but not always seen favorably by others. This has been my experience as a Catholic.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Catholicism, I’ll admit. I grew up digesting everything, without questioning, and rebelled in my college years against the more traditional teachings of my youth. Now, for the first time in my life, I am attending a school with no Catholic affiliation and thinking more and more about my Catholic identity, without the crutch of most people around me being, well, Catholic.
At various moments in my life, I’m confronted with the statement or, sort of, question, “Oh, you’re Catholic?” When that happens, I’m never sure where the conversation is going to go. I know you might be saying it’s a badge I should wear with pride and honor, and I very well should. In fact, I’m not ashamed of being Catholic. However, when we look to the Bible, even Peter, the Rock of the Church, struggled with being a follower of Christ when he denied Christ not once, but three times.
The story of Peter shows us the true meaning of taking on an identity that has significance to us, and others, too. We all gradually add to our identities as we go about life. These titles come from what we’re born into (sister, brother, child); our work (scientist, teacher, nurse); and who we choose to be in the world (volunteer, painter, marathon runner). With each piece of our identity, we also accept the expectations that come along with that identity. The same goes for identifying as a Christian. While we each choose to become a follower of Christ in a very personal and private way, we, like Peter, experience what being a Christian means to others around us. This can be a very positive experience, like connecting with other Christians or engaging in inter-religious dialogue, or a difficult experience, like being associated with the hurtful and negative actions of Christians.
Catholicism has had a rough past, as we all know. And really, we’ve also had a rough recent past, too. I’m deeply saddened by things that people in the Church, particularly the hierarchy, have done. I wish I could dissociate myself from those pieces of the Church and only associate myself with all the rich and wonderful parts of Catholicism. But it doesn’t work that way. This is a relationship with a very human Church. I can’t pick and choose. I’m all in, even if that means my indirect association with acts I would never condone.
Whenever someone brings up a sore spot, like the sex abuse scandal, I share their disgust. The tension in the room kind of diffuses after that. I’m not the type of person who’s beyond seeing the flaws in her religion’s history. There are opportunities for clarification, too. Sometimes, what’s being attributed to the Catholic Church is misunderstood. Oftentimes, and perhaps most frustratingly, people associate me with their experiences with other Catholics; I try to show them that Catholics are actually very diverse. Sometimes, the Catholics who are most visible, are the loudest in a conversation, and get the most airtime don’t represent all of the community of believers.
Lately, though, what usually follows “Oh, you’re Catholic?” is a positive reaction. Something like, “You know, I really like Pope Francis. He seems to practice what Christianity is really about.” Thank God for Pope Francis, really. In a time when my first reaction is to cringe about where the conversation is going to go, more and more, I’m met with glowing praise of this humble leader. He has meant a lot to me, and now so many others, who see him as a truly holy person, a humble servant of God.
In reality, the story of Peter is one that teaches us about being modern-day disciples. We make a commitment to the Church, to be with Her in good times and in bad, to include Her intimately in our identity, just as the disciples did long ago. This commitment can mean standing by the Church when it is most difficult, intertwining our identity with something far bigger than ourselves, and also when it is a source of pride and joy in our lives. We are called to that same intimacy today in our ongoing relationship with our very human Church.