“This is awesome,” Hannah said as the five of us picked ourselves up off the floor.
“I’m sorry—what is awesome exactly?” I responded, willing my knees to cooperate.
“This. Talking about being Catholic, together. I go to public school. We don’t do this at public school. And you know, it’s the Bay Area. We don’t talk about religion like this here,” she explained.
My four teen-aged charges and I had deviated from my Confirmation lesson plan yet again, and the conversation that ensued was characteristic of this group—thoughtful and compassionate, curious and careful. Having had every intention of guiding them through an exploration of the depths of Catholic tradition, I had been (less than) surprised when all four of them admitted to having left much of the admittedly dense reading for the day aside. As a result, we did a bit of faith sharing and looked to our book’s discussion questions, the first of which read, “What attracts you to the Catholic faith?” When it was my turn to respond, I had waxed eloquently about Mystery and smallness and family.
As we trooped down the stairs into the garage to pack bags for the homeless with our parish’s St. Vincent DePaul chapter, I thought to myself, “Who are you kidding?” Not that those things are untrue. I love that there is something about my Catholicism that I can’t quite explain, that the apparent contradiction of body and blood becoming so much more is part of what draws me in. I love that my tradition reminds me of the interdependence of all created beings. Being reminded of this keeps me humble. And I do love the way my mom responded when I came to her that December of my junior year of high school, exasperated that she insisted on decorating our house in Advent colors. “Sometimes our faith calls us to do things a little bit differently,” I remember her saying quietly. “It’s just part of who we are.”
Not untrue, just missing the mark. Committing to Catholicism feels more like an ongoing negotiation than a once-in-a-lifetime choice. Sure, I took the name Cecilia that Saturday morning when the bishop smeared what felt like too much oil of chrism across my forehead, together affirming my parents’ decision to baptize me. But that didn’t prevent me from continuing to question the tradition I claim as my own. And that questioning isn’t a matter merely of voicing doubts, either; it’s not a lack of faith. On my best days, it’s part of an earnest and hopefully lifelong journey of sincere faith honestly seeking genuine understanding.
“Remember what happened to Adam and Eve when they tried to eat of the Tree of Knowledge?” I can hear someone who sounds an awful lot like my second-grade teacher saying in the back of my mind. “We’re not meant to understand everything about our faith.” Perhaps not. But the alternative shouldn’t be to neglect critical engagement with what we profess to be true.
For a long time, I felt like this critical engagement subverted my faith, made it difficult for me to stand on sure ground in stating, “I believe.” Whether it was the way the teaching of the magisterium regarded women or our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, members of other traditions or those of no religion at all, I felt that ground crumbling beneath me. But more recently, I’ve begun to embrace this critical engagement as my own way of being faithful. And I’ve come to see that I don’t need to stand on sure ground so much as make the road by walking it.
Jennifer Owens serves as Faith Formation Minister for Teens and Young Adults at St. Augustine Catholic Church. She studies Christian spirituality in the doctoral program at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.
 Names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.
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