When I got my current job and moved back to New York City in 2010, I had to go through the painful “re-initiation” into urban life and local neighborhood orientation. I enjoy the camaraderie and conversation that take place over a pint and plate, so I quickly sought haven at Crescent and Vine in my corner of Astoria. Repressing my introverted tendencies, I introduced myself to the regulars I met each Friday. When I asked what I did for a living, I regrettably felt awkward responding, “I teach ethics and discipleship at a Catholic high school.” Although the reactions were generally cordial, I did occasionally get the inquisitive, “Why?” or a snarky, “Is there anything new or worth teaching?” These encounters and the theme of Theological Shark Week II have set me to do some soul searching.
I turned to the Apostle’s Creed (as Kevin also did!) for inspiration to answer “Why I am Catholic?” and why I participate actively in its tradition. Reflecting on all the richness there, I happily noted that so much of what I cherish about being a Catholic Christian could also be claimed by any of my non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters. That, however, didn’t help me enunciate any clearer why I am a Catholic Christian. So, I made my way to the third part of the confession:
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints . . .”
I didn’t finish the recitation. I lingered on the concept of the communion of saints with the attendant consolation it brought. When reflecting on why I remain part of the Catholic Church, it struck me that it is because it is so. The Catholic Church makes real and present the mystery of all holy men and women, universally and at all times, working out their salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil 2:12). If I feel as though I am alone, awkward, or anxious in a world hostile to the message on which I’ve staked my whole life and livelihood, I need only look to those who have gone before me for encouragement.
The communion of saints places me square within the amazing line of tradition, the passage of the faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, written and oral. It invites me to look to the completed lives of men and women like me, who gave testimony, in word and deed, in a world no less hostile to their message of love for God and neighbor, and ask them for aid, advice, and intercession. It’s like a family in that sense; it is the family Christ calls together. It’s messy, at times seemingly dysfunctional, but it is mutually supportive in the love of Christ that created the communion and continually calls us together to share a meal. It demands respect for our elders and their wisdom, granting sure footing as we walk into an uncertain future. At times the Catholic Church is criticized for constantly looking backward, or holding onto the past. However, G.K. Chesterton put it best when he wrote:
“Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)
Contrary to being archaic, tradition is the ever-innovative vehicle that helps us gratefully remain faithful brothers and sisters to those holy men and women who have borne the very faith and morals which ground our claim to judgment in and of the present. Without the conservative sensibility of the tradition of the Catholic Church, the deposit of revelation would not be available. We would lack the eloquence of the liturgy, the work of the people. We would miss out on relationships with our ancestors in faith and not know from where we came. We would miss out on the richness of this family life and the support it brings.
The emphasis of the Catholic Church on the communion of saints simultaneously humbles me and lifts me up. Humbling, it reminds me that I am one among millions—past, present, and future—who are scrambling in graced poverty toward a destiny too marvelous to comprehend. Our attempts are only small pericopes in a cosmic epic of God’s recapitulation of creation. Still, even our small passage in this great love story has infinite value, as God has proven in the stories of the saints, whose dignity I share. That lifts me up. My generation, with generations past and those to come, pilgrimage together, a company of disciples on missions throughout the world. And… Christ walks with us, as we walk with each other and recognize him in the breaking of the bread, as Catholics are wont to do (cf. Lk 24:35). The communion of the saints takes place at each Eucharist—and we celebrate this feast with each other as with him. Though I love my little corner bar in my neighborhood, my sure haven and home is the Catholic Church, and my fellowship takes place not over a pint and plate, but chalice and paten.