The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.
That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.
This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”
All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.
I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.
I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.
Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.
The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.
And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.
The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).
There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house,
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?