During a Men’s Bible Study years ago, one of the men in my group said he was reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. His religious’ curiosity got me to thinking about my own journey as a cradle Catholic.
I was born into a faith that has existed for nearly 2000 years. It has survived devastating attacks from within and from without. It has endured a history of bloody persecution in which thousands of its faithful were ripped apart by wild beasts, crucified, burned alive and thrown off high cliffs, drawn and quartered–all because they believed in the Divinity of the Christ. It has launched crusades and burned a few thousand heretics at the stake in defense of the faith. It is a religion that is filled with mystery, ceremony, pomp and high circumstance.
The Catholic Church also has its unique smells that excite and calm, music that raises the spirit and comforts the soul. Theologically it soars like the eagle as it tries to touch the hand of God. It can cure disease, ease suffering and prepare for the final moments of life. It is a church of over one billion people with as many different strains of thinking as a university library.
However being a faith of deep and high-minded ideas and ideals sometimes it confuses. Sometimes it frightens. For all its attendant holiness, its leaders sometimes seem caught in a whirling vortex of charity and unadulterated power that idly dismisses reason and moral logic in favor of pragmatic goals. Some of its popes have been saintly! Others have done the work of the devil. Most have been ambitious while others mediocre.
The Church is a very human institution— a living contradiction. I once asked a priest during a parish Christmas Mission if he had any advice for someone who had been born into the pre-Vatican Church but came to his full religious maturity during the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII. I do not think he answered my question nor did anyone understand my dilemma.
I am caught twixt and tween the old and new Catholic Church. There are many things about the old church of my youth, which is vastly different from my adult church, that I still relish. As a child, the many rules, moral laws and order of the faith were deeply ingrained in me by habited nuns and humorless priests. Along with the Baltimore Catechism they laid the foundation for my adult faith.
We all learned the dogmas of the faith by rote memory with a diligence and certitude that armed us to face the three major enemies, who competed for our immortal souls–the world, the flesh and the devil. To paraphrase TV’s Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950s, we knew the facts. I doubt if the same could be said today.
The Church’s teachings on sexual morality were complicated. We were taught our bodies were the temples of the Holy Ghost yet they were also the snares of the devil. We were warned about improper touches to ourselves and others. Girls were taught to dress modestly—no long pants, though I do remember a few occasions when they wore Bermuda shorts. Most dirty magazines of the day were, not what anyone would call pornographic, but more of the naturalist pulp magazines of nude sunbathers. It was over such a stack of weather-beaten magazines in the bushes of a local high school that a friend instructed me and another friend in the “facts of life.” Another time, a priest threatened me with eternal damnation for beating around the bush in the Confessional. I was 11 years old.
The rules did work. I have kept the faith all these years. I have avoided most of the near occasions of sins. After studying in Jesuit institutions for 11 years, I was able to rationalize those I couldn’t avoid. I have been faithfully married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and still look at women in the same positive way that I adopted in the weeds at Forest Hills high school. However the Church’s abject legalism did take a toll on my understanding of God’s divine mercy and the Agape reflection of His unlimited personality.
For most of my life I have been a habitual worrier who is relieved when things are over, instead of enjoying the joyful moments of my life. But the new church is much different. The church of love and forgiveness has replaced the church of law and order. In the Church of divine rules, I had tried to micromanage everything and had left nothing up to God.
But the freedoms of the modern church is the worst nightmare of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in his classic The Brothers Karamazov who cursed God for making men with a free will. During Holy Hour I have learned to open my heart and soul so that my life is more open to His grace. I find this happens best when I listen to God in the silence of His presence.
I have learned to accept my body as it is and realize that it was made in the image and likeness of God and was not something dirty and offensive. However people still need honest and realistic rules—like the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ emphasis on loving all other human beings.
The modern ideas of relativism and secularism permeate our culture. These dangerous ideas have infiltrated church thinking on many levels. The modern church has in some respects thrown the Christ child out with the bath water. Scandal, indifference and moral confusion abound. I see many others who do not have the double grounding in the faith that I have. While the journey never gets easier, God’s presence in my life helps me stay on the right path more nearly.