Examiner.com: A fresh look at Catholicism; or, What can be learned by looking.

19 05 2009

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In the Southside of Birmingham, there are two churches which represent two different rites of Catholicism: St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church and St. George Greek Melkite Catholic Church. I have prayed with them in their respective liturgies and have found that I more deeply appreciate the heritage and the tradition which they have brought to the whole Church: the plethora of singing and chanting; the proud use of incense; the bells; the reverence and kissing (not worship) of icons and Scripture; the use of Arabic, Aramaic, and Lebanese languages; the use of all of these sacramentals creates an “atmosphere” of worshiping Someone. Though I am a Roman Catholic, I usually find that I resonate more with the traditions and approaches to Christian life, thought, and prayer of Eastern Catholicism than with that of Roman Catholicism. (This is in no way a denunciation of Roman Catholicism, nor that Eastern Catholicism is “right,” and Roman Catholicism is “wrong.” It is merely an affirmation of my resonance with Eastern Christianity – I find it to be more “home-y”.)

Thinking of these liturgical rituals (as well as Eastern Catholic “thought,” “prayer,” and the many other avenues down which one could travel) leads one to realize that there is a depth to Catholicism of which many of us are unaware (I will be forever-digging, too, it seems). There are thousands of books, teachings, and ways of life from multiple cultures (indeed, continents) which span over 2,000 years. Of the writings which I’ve had the opportunity to encounter so far (both in East and West), most can be described as nothing short of beautiful: adages of holy people and complete works, seemingly-forgotten philosophical, theological, and spiritual treatises, each of which portray how a particular person, in a particular time, and in a particular culture, strives for sanctity, that is, for union with God in this (daily-lived) life. It reminds one that there is something more to being Catholic than what is generally portrayed in the mainstream media (that is, clerical collars and bishops’ mitres mixed with conflict, misunderstandings, fear, scandal, conspiracy, authoritarianism, etc.). 

For example, whenever one hears the word “Catholic,” their mind is (often enough) immediately drawn to teachings, disciplines, and practices which are Catholic, but more accurately, Roman Catholic. That is, the average person, and, oftentimes, the average Catholic, is accustomed to associating Catholicism with its largest “branch”: the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. It is little known, however, that there are nearly 30 more rites in the Catholic Church (including the two found here in Birmingham), and, while held together in the same beliefs under the (unifying) teaching authority of the Pope, have different traditions which grew out of the times and cultures in which they originated. Some of these traditions were begun by the Apostles* themselves and continue very strongly (especially as regards the preservation of their rituals in their respective “Divine Liturgies”).

The question that I have for those who can be so critical of the Church is: how much do they really know about the Catholic Church? Following popular criticisms of Catholicism, it seems, not very much. It is often so many inflamed catchphrases and assumptive labels which usually mean nothing, but do stir some people up (for that’s what they’ve always heard). As Archbishop Fulton Sheen has said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is of course, quite a different thing.”

For many critics, it seems, the Church is simply the place which is visited once per week to remain in good standing before the eyes of God, that is, as a bare minimum effort which doesn’t strive to go further into living the mysteries of Christianity. For many others, the Church is simply an instrument of authority through which the masses may be controlled by “old men.”** In both of these cases, the realization that the Catholic Church is not just the Roman Catholic Church (with all of the ideas and [mis]understandings found therein) calls us to appreciate the fact that there is more which is waiting to be discovered in the life of the Christian and of the Church. (More than just those things which are often dismissively and superficially portrayed.) For the former, it speaks of an appreciation and a living of the Christian life from a different perspective, which may serve to deepen their own faith in its daily practice. For the latter also, the distancing from what is perceived to be the “Roman Catholic Church” may provide an opportunity to see the Church in a new light and from a different perspective: away from what is perceived to be “dogmas,” “rules,” and “blind obedience,” and into a fresh look at worship and reverence of the God Whom we believe to have started the Church.


* For example, the Church was founded in: Constantinople by St. Andrew, Alexandria by St. Mark, and India by St. Thomas. (As I have heard it, Rome had actually sent missionaries to India only to find out that the Church was already in that part of India and thriving.)
** And, of course, there are faithful Catholics.

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