When I think Catholic, I think big. The Catholic Church is a big Church: big numbers (over one billion members) spread all over the globe and big buildings - cathedrals and basilicas - with big parking lots. But before we get carried away with too much of this external "bigness" it might be good to remember that the Church was Catholic already at the first Pentecost, before there were any big cathedrals or parking lots, before there were a billion members. The Church was Catholic even when the disciples could all gather together in one house!
Catholic implies big or universal - not just big on the outside but big on the inside. Catholic is a mark of the inner nature of the Church. The Church is Catholic because it is all-embracing. The Catholic Church is the sacrament, the outward sign of a God who is Catholic, a God who is all-embracing, a God who wants to share the one eternal banquet with people of every race, language and way of life.
The Church is Catholic because, like God, it is not limited to one country or culture. In ancient times it was able to move from its Aramaic/Palestinian origins and adopt the language and culture of the Greek world in order to preach God's message. It was able to express itself in Syriac and spread throughout the East to India and beyond. It was able to express itself in Coptic and spread to Egypt and throughout Africa. It was able to adopt Roman customs and the Latin language into its ritual prayer. It was able to employ Greek philosophy to explain its beliefs. It was able to use the Roman legal system to organize its hierarchical structure. The Church is Catholic because it can take whatever is good in the cultures of the world and embrace it as its own.
The Church is Catholic because it is not limited to one interpretation of what it means to be a disciple. When men and women, moved by the Holy Spirit, decide to live the gospel in a unique way, they don't have to start a "new Church." The Catholic Church has room for them - room for a Benedict of Nursia, a Francis of Assisi, an Ignatius of Loyola; room for an Angela Merici, a Catherine McAuley, an Elizabeth Ann Seton and a Katharine Drexel. There are many ways to live the gospel within the Catholic Church. That's what makes it Catholic.
Just think of the diverse groups or members of groups that might exist within your own parish: The Blue Army, Call to Action, Daughters of Isabella, Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, Legionnaires of Christ, Oblates of St. Benedict, Opus Dei, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Secular Franciscans, Voice of the Faithful. It's a big church! It's a Catholic Church.
But what happens when our Catholic Church embraces people we don't like or don't agree with? (For example, I don't know any Catholic who would not have difficulty with at least one of the organizations in the above list.) When this big, all-embracing, Catholic Church welcomes people who don't think like I do and when I have to worship with people who are different from me, I sometimes wonder if maybe it wouldn't be better to belong to a little Church where everybody was alike: looked alike, thought alike, prayed alike.
Being Catholic isn't always comfortable. It stretches me to think new thoughts - bigger thoughts. The Catholic Church is not the place for narrow minds or one-issue religion. And this has been a problem from day one.
Jesus himself was too "Catholic" for some of his contemporaries. He dined with the wrong people, cured the wrong people and made friends with the wrong people. His Catholicity was a scandal because his embrace was so wide, so inclusive that he shed his blood (as we pray at each Eucharist) for you and for all. Being Catholic is not only a mark of pride; it is a challenge. Catholic is not only something that the Church is. It is something the Church continually strives to become.
Reprinted with permission of American Catholic, Every Day Catholic
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