What about other people?

I am going to try to tackle a subject which, after confession, presented one of the biggest challenges when I thought about become Catholic. It’s also been a challenge to write about and this blog post has been re-drafted many times over the past few weeks. Unlike Confession, this isn’t a particularly Catholic problem or even a Christian problem. I think I would have had difficulties no matter which religion I was thinking of following.

For close to twenty years, I had as little to do with formal religion as possible. Whatever the rights and wrongs are of this decision, I undoubtedly learnt much from my experience of being outside the church. Apart from a flirtation with atheism which lasted only a few months, I never stopped believing in God although there were periods when I slipped into agnosticism and concluded that God was unknown and unknowable.

Over time, even though I practised no religion, I often felt that I was touched by God through encounters with other people. Sometimes these were people whose lives crossed mine directly and sometimes they were people I read about who had done something remarkable to help others or overcome great difficulties. Not all of them were Christians and many of them were not religious.

After my first and second pregnancy, I suffered persistent health problems and started to practise yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, although not all at the same time. This helped my body to heal, but also helped me, until then a stressed type A personality, to achieve a more balanced and peaceful state of mind. When I concentrated on my breathing, I also became aware of God in me and around me. However, I avoided churches and anything to do with Christianity until I was faced with a difficult situation and it seemed I could do nothing but pray.

Despite the fact that I came to Mass, I had absolutely no intention of ever again making a formal commitment to any religion until I quite suddenly experienced what might be described as a call to become Catholic. This delighted, terrified and confused me. However, I worried that being Catholic involved believing that Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists were outside the limits of God’s mercy, and that even my Protestant family and friends were on paths which led to a spiritual dead end.

If the answer to any of the above questions was ‘yes’, then I was quite clear what my response to Catholicism would be. To borrow a phrase from our recent referendum campaign, I was going to say, ‘No Thanks.’

I had recognised God at work in my life when I was still firmly planted in the Protestant church. After I decided to have nothing to do with churches, I gradually realised that that didn’t change the fact that God was still there, quietly working in my life. Therefore I would be dishonest if I signed up for a religion which forced me to believe that everyone outside it was on a path to hell.

This question particularly affected me because I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times from other churches since the Reformation, each new group believing that they were right and that the prospects of the previous group, as far as salvation was concerned, were at best precarious. We were very suspicious of other Protestant groups, complaining that they did not keep the Sabbath day or that they held only one church service on Sunday. Catholics were probably seen as being at least as bad as pagans, and probably worse since they had corrupted Christianity.

I was very wary about committing myself to a religion if that meant not recognising God at work in the life of another, unless they fulfilled all the conditions which I or my religious group had devised about what God’s work should look like.

When I began asking Father K about Catholicism, he said he would give me a copy of the catechism to help me with my questions. Fine, I thought, remembering the booklet-sized Shorter Catechism which I had learnt off by heart as a child. When Father K, presented me with a black book thicker than the Bible, I thought he was winding me up. Did he really expect me to get through it? I haven’t read it all cover to cover, but it has been useful.

When I asked Father K about the Catholic church’s attitude to other religions, he told me to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1257, which says that God works through His sacraments, but that he is also above them. The Catholic idea of sacraments still seemed very mysterious to me and so I kept on hunting in the catechism until I found this:

Since Christ died for all and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery (CCC 1260).

That was good enough for me and I took it as proof that I could join the Catholic church without having to mentally condemn all of the rest of the world’s population. I was still faced with the challenge of how I as an individual could reconcile the feeling that God is at work in all people with
a very strong and specific call to become Catholic.

I came back to the verse, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.” God is infinite and I am finite and limited in my understanding. He may be at work throughout humanity in many different ways, but it was clear that he wanted to work in my life in a very specific way.

I’ll leave the last words on the subject to the Jesuit, Father Gerard W. Hughes, who wrote in ‘Cry of Wonder’:

Experience was beginning to teach me that perhaps God was not nearly as fussy about religious denominations as we the clergy. God was to be found in all kinds of people, manifesting Godself in the genuine love, compassion and truthfulness of their lives.

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