It’s a curious thing, really. The fact is that most people never progress beyond a sixth-grade understanding of their own faith. You wouldn’t stop taking math or English at that level. Why would you decide you were finished with something as integral to your life as your faith at such an early age?

– Rabbi Harold White

I was reminded of this quote as I read The Hoya over the preceding weeks. Several students have engaged in what I can only hope will become an ongoing and sincere discussion concerning the nature of our Catholic identity.

While I have points of praise and contention for each of the pieces thus far published, it is the most recent, “Losing Our Identity,” (The Hoya, Oct. 5, 2004, A3), on which I wish to comment directly.

And while I am measurably wary of interposing what I can only assess to be an ineffably nuanced, and therefore easily misconstrued, position, I believe it advantageous to expound upon a few of the statements made in the aforementioned article.

The author makes the claim that the more he reads, the more he realizes, “Many Catholics don’t know what it actually means to be Catholic.” This assertion is misleading, even dangerous, because it seems to presume that there is but one monolithic way to “be Catholic.”

In fact, one of most attractive attributes of Catholicism is its enthusiastic embrace of a diverse spectrum of ways in which to practice it. It bespeaks volumes about the character of an institution that can transcend ideological and partisan lines to include figures as diverse as James Carville and Robert Novak, Mel Gibson and Martin Sheen. It tells ineffable tomes about us that we can call both Karl Rahner and Dorothy Day exemplars of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

To substantiate his claims, the author inculpates the liturgical stylings of a particular Mass community on campus that seemed unconcerned, even impudent, in its casual approach to purportedly proper protocol for worship. He disdainfully remarks, “And here I was thinking that the Mass was the same everywhere.”

Such a statement is forgivably borne of the somewhat misleading truism that, no matter where in the world one attends Mass, one is always celebrating the same Mass in communion with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world.

Insofar as the Gospel is the same, the Creed is the same, and the underlying belief that we are celebrating the sacrificial act of our Lord is the same, the Mass is indeed the same everywhere.

To allow oneself to become fixated upon peripheral details such as the position of one’s knees relative to the ground during the Eucharistic Prayer misses the point entirely.

To be sure, ours is a rich tradition with rituals not arbitrarily assigned. But ours is not a tradition that scrutinizes these superficialities at the risk of overlooking our very purpose for being there.

The author also puts forth a claim that calls to mind Rabbi White’s words concerning self-imposed ignorance about one’s own faith. He professes that the Mass – and, by virtue of his ensuing remarks, one can only assume that he means in the precise form it is practiced today – was instituted by Jesus and has continued since, without addition or subtraction.

While some fundamental elements of the Mass may indeed have been established by Jesus and practiced unbroken by believers thence, to asseverate that we hold today all of the same rituals and beliefs as did the first century followers of Christ, is woefully misinformed.

One need only peruse a book chronicling the development of the Church to discover that the Mass, like every aspect of Catholicism, has grown and adapted -under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – throughout the course of human history.

The author concludes his treatise with frequent references to “our beliefs,” a phrase which can serve to perpetuate the misconception that ours is a static and immutable structure, devoid of human error or omission.

The author would do well to read some of the apologies our current Pontiff has issued to various groups we have offended, persecuted, and even killed, throughout our ongoing attempt to more perfectly realize the Kingdom of God in an imperfect temporal world.

Some of the voices whose ideas brought about much-needed change and revitalization in the Church, not a few of whom bore the moniker S.J. at the end of their name, were often criticized, even censored, initially by the hierarchy. This is not what it “actually means to be Catholic.”

The towering theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles elucidates our responsibility to sincere and thoughtful acceptance of and dissent with magisterial teachings with far more aplomb and acumen than my own feeble attempts in this viewpoint, a medium more appropriate for sound-bites than sound-reasoning.

In the end, I could not be more excited at the prospect of a Jesuit university that takes its Catholic and intellectual identity seriously.

This conversation is essential because it forces the participants to reexamine their deepest convictions, and the process of critical discernment and self-evaluation is seminal to all persons of faith, with no better place than Georgetown and no better time than now.

Michael Bayer is a senior in the College.

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