The Philippines (with the exception of a few Muslim areas in Mindanao) is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The Catholic Church which arrived with the Spanish colonisers may have made its first inroads into this country by force, but now Filipinos seem to be willing and enthusiastic followers of the Catholic faith. In a country where one church is so visibly dominant, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on what being Catholic really means.
Although our first association with the word catholic is often the Roman Catholic Church, in reality all the mainstream churches sign up to a creed which states belief in the catholic church: not as an institution but as a deeper reality of the nature of the church, the body of Christ. A church which is catholic, meaning universal, or even more accurately translated (so I am told) “pertaining to everything”. It is this idea of catholicity, universality, or “pertaining to everything” which I think merits further reflection.
Writing as I am half way round the world from my homeland, perhaps the most immediately visible significance of catholicity is that this is faith on a global scale. It is very easy to recognise, here in the Philippines, that the church here is the same church as the church in Europe, because it is, well, the same. But I am not sure this universal sameness is really what is meant by the catholicity of “pertaining to everything”. Perhaps the model of everyone doing the same everywhere comes from a fear that doing things differently creates tension and division, but inculturation is an essential part of the essence of the catholic church, not so as to separate the people of one place from a wider human family, but so that their faith can truly “pertain to everything”, something it strikes me is impossible for a church built on an imported model, which fails to pertain to the culture and reality of people in different situations.
Universality is about far more than just sense of place; it is also about an engagement within our own spheres, wherever in the world they may be. For a truly catholic faith that “pertains to everything” no issue, no question, no debate is “not a faith issue”. Our catholic, universal faith is called to engage with science, with politics, with economics, with social issues, with history and with the future. In order to “pertain to everything” the catholic church needs to be open and active and engaged, responding to different issues and to new realities. We should not be saying everything goes, but nor should we say that we the church already have the answers and know best. We need to be both speaker and listener, both teacher and learner, both expert and infant, both accuser and defender, both supporter and opposition: but never mere bystanders who look the other way.
So far, I have remained in the domain of thoughts and reason, but for me there is also a much more human face to this catholicity – it is a faith which pertains not just to everything, but equally, to everyone. By its very name and very nature the catholic church is called to inclusivity, is called to an openness to all: irrespective of their lifestyle, their culture, even their faith and belief, the definition of catholicity says everyone is in. For me this is the heart of the gospel message, and the heart of the meaning of “catholic”: Jesus, and in turn the church, turns to those on the outside, and draws an ever larger circle until everyone is on the inside. If the church defines itself by exclusivity, by who is in and who is on the outside, has it not lost the very essence of its own identity?
And finally what about on a personal level? What does it mean for me, as an individual to say whether or not my faith is “Catholic”? How should this universality, this “pertaining to everything” play out in my life? I guess it means having no closed doors and nothing that is out of reach. It means putting everything on the table and holding nothing back. It means not saying no, that part of me, that part of my life God can’t touch. It means not convincing ourselves that that part of me, that part of my life, to which I am so attached, God wouldn’t want to touch or change anyway. It means not predetermining what God wants to do with my life because it fits neatly with my own plans. It means praying, not to tell God what to do, but to listen to what he wants me to do.
Am I truly Catholic, well, if I am honest, probably not yet ... but I am working on it...