I don’t have to look far: I see within my own extended family young adults who are no longer practicing members of the Roman Catholic Church, in which they were faithfully raised. Were this 1947 or 1948, they would have been told by a Catholic priest by the name of Father Leonard Feeney that they were on their way to eternal damnation. Father Feeney was excommunicated from the church for his extreme and heretical views when I was still a teenager intensely interested in this theological warfare that would help to define the church at least for the rest of the century.
Not quite at such fever pitch, the struggle goes on. There are those who hold that the goal of the church is to convert everyone to Catholicism. If we Catholics believe that belonging to the church is a good thing, then, of course, we should be eager to share it with others. I can give, as you can, I’m sure, many important reasons why membership in the church is one of the greatest blessings of my life. But whether or not we should be concerned about getting everyone into the church, even if that were possible, is another matter. And whether eternal salvation requires membership in the church remains a question that must be faced and answered in the light available to us today.
St. John said that the Spirit of God blows where it wills, and yet for centuries the Catholic Church has maintained that eternal life awaits only those who, “in some way” belong to it. Jesus spoke of his followers as the leaven in the loaf. I have made bread often — in a machine, I must admit, and I know that the leaven, the yeast, is one of the smallest of the ingredients that make up the dough — but it’s the one that lifts all the others by an age-old process of chemical interaction.
Don’t you agree that that’s the way we should see ourselves as church? Only one of the almost countless religions in the world, but having enormous influence for good? For what reason would we put limiting restrictions on that clear declaration we just heard from the prophet Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the world.”
Every time Pope Francis does or says something that makes the global news media, I think of that promise: one man standing in the person of Jesus and representing millions of us, lifting up the world from its miseries and its troubles and pointing out the light of the Risen Jesus that shines among us even when we are willfully or carelessly blind to it. He does that by his sincere words of faith and hope and love, his awareness of the presence of the good and ever-loving God in our midst. In our own smaller venues, we, each and all of us, are empowered to do the same.
I believe there is no need for us Catholics to claim everyone for Roman Catholicism or even for Christianity; we need only recognize all other persons as creatures of the one God and leave to the Spirit whatever should and may come next. We are to live the Gospel of Jesus as fully and as faithfully as we can: taking stands for justice & peace, acting mercifully, living in reconciliation & forgiveness, sharing generously, and always making decisions dictated by our well-formed consciences. We are to carry our personal crosses with patience and good cheer, no matter how they came to us, hoping, expecting, and celebrating in good times and in bad.
I hope the new year has begun well for you and that it will continue to unfold in that way.