What’s In A Word?

After doodling around trying to write a post for this week, I eventually decided “I’ve got nothin’.”  It’s not that my mind was blank (any more so than usual), or that there is nothing to choose from, rather there is too much right now.  It is mentally paralyzing.  Lets’ see – there is an insane deal with a deadly terrorist nation, domestic mass murders, religious persecution of little old religious sisters who just want to help poor people, casual dinner conversations about murdering babies for body parts.  With apologies to Dylan and Hendrix, “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”  So I decided to write about words.  Actually one word in particular – “Catholic.”

It is pretty clear that if a billion or so baptized Catholics all started living the faith of the Church, it would clean up most of this mess.  And I’m not talking capital “S,” living Saint on earth kind of faith, just what should be normal Catholicism; accepting everything that the Church teaches must be held, going to Mass to worship the living God and to thank Him for all His divine blessings, approaching the Eucharist as the real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of  Christ, praying every day, and, oh yeah, regrettably still sinning but going to confession.  Is that too much to ask?  The Church Fathers didn’t think so.  I would dearly love to see Saints Athanasius, Jerome and Cyril of Alexandria assigned to dioceses today, and watch the fireworks begin.  Them boys didn’t think much of allowing cancerous heretics to metastasize within the Body.

As to the word itself, it might help with clarity if we really understood the meaning of “Catholic.”  It is usually defined as meaning “universal,” but that leaves an important nuance missing.  The Greek katholikos comes from two root words.  Kata means “with respect to,” and holos means “the whole.”  So the real meaning of Catholic is with respect to or according to the whole.  In other words, the very name for our faith is a statement of both the indivisibility of the deposit of faith and of the Body of Christ.  That is a lot more specific than just a kind of general universality; “all are welcome, all are welcome.”

We have “bad” Catholics aplenty, both with respect to the deposit of faith and the unity of the Body (in one sense we are all “bad” Catholics because we are all selfish, weak sinners, but I’m guessing you know what I mean).  The Catholic who openly rejects certain teachings, to the extent that they actually have faith, is practicing not with respect to the whole but “with respect to me.”  Sticking with the Greek, we could call that not the Kataholos faith but the Katamou faith.  We are subjected to these heretics with regularity on the evening news, since the most obvious examples are politicians.  However, these rotten vines are not limited to political heretics, as egregious as their objective sinfulness is.  It also includes the people who go apoplectic about communion in the hand, the novus ordo, and uncovered women’s heads; (I’m not talking about people’s preferences here, but insisting that allowable things are not allowable – I certainly have my own preferences but don’t demand that others embrace them).  On the flipside, it also includes those who denigrate the Tridentine Mass, ad orientum worship, incense, and any sacred music written before 1975 and played without guitars.  The Katamou faith is wide indeed.

What gets less attention is the Catholics whose faith is equally Katamou, “with respect to me,” not because of doctrine but because of their sins against gratitude and hospitality in the Body itself.  “You can have my body and my time, Lord, but stay away from my heart.”  I have been reminded recently just how petty and provincial some regular Mass-going Catholics are.  I know a few daily Mass-goers who are so consistently rude, negative and nasty that I disappear when I see them coming.  If you say “Good morning” they walk past you with stony faces and no eye contact.  If they do speak it is to complain.  They would walk into the church and tell a visitor to “Get out of my seat!”  How a person can receive the Eucharist daily and remain stone-hearted is a great mystery.

In some places the long-term parishioners are like medieval castle-dwellers who want to pull up the drawbridge at the church to keep all them out-of-towner Catholics out.  Their idea of “the whole” with respect to the Body is remarkably tiny.  “Keep that nose, stomach and liver away from us, our little toenail is doing fine all on its own.”  There are many other examples among Mass-going Catholics (single-issue parishioners, stingy ones, etc.).  These people are often less visible than public heretics, but is their selfishness, their lack of charity not still a reflection of living a faith oriented “with respect to me” instead of the whole?

I used to think when Christ talked about us being set against our families that He meant the separation between believers and non-believers.  It certainly does mean that, but I’m appreciating more and more how Jesus’ warning applies to those within his Body, the Church.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21).  A Body that fights itself is ill and needs healing.  God grant me my own shot of spiritual penicillin, and grant that hospitality, that necessary first pillar for the good Christian steward, soften all of our hearts.

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