On Being an Ordinary Catholic

People often say, ‘I’m just an ordinary Catholic’, as though it were nothing much. Yet it is not ‘nothing’ to have been baptized into Christ, nourished by his word and sacraments, and given the pledge of eternal life. Sometimes, calling oneself an ‘ordinary’ Catholic is an attempt to avoid the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels beloved of those who believe that they alone are right. Sometimes, it is an attempt to pre-empt criticism for not being quite as sure of an argument or explanation as one thinks one ought to be. In fact, there is really no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ Catholic, but I think most of us who would describe ourselves as such know what we are about, even if we aren’t very good at it. We are trying to live good and religious lives, even though we have become for many Public Enemy No. 1 — and there is no denying that it hurts. We don’t mind being thought ordinary, but being thought evil? No, definitely not.

There is an odd kind of arithmetic at work, by which we cannot claim any part in all the good done by the Church in the two thousand years of her history, but we can be associated with, and blamed for, all her failures. Speaking for myself, I have no desire to claim the good done by others as my own, but I am uncomfortable about being held responsible for the actions of people I’ve never met or who lived long before I was born. Here at the monastery we regularly receive a rain of abusive emails and comments, suggesting that we are somehow implicated in whatever abuse occurred in Ireland. No use explaining that we are nuns not sisters (and therefore not involved in things like the Magdalene laundries), that we aren’t Irish nor were we adults (or in some cases, even alive) at the time the alleged offences took place. It is enough that we are Catholics and wear a habit. (For a thought-provoking comment on the McAleese Report and the popular view of the Magdalene laundries by Brendan O’Neill, an avowed atheist, see http://soc.li/8AVmfmS)

The allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien and the circumstances surrounding his resignation have added further fuel to the fire. Whether true or false, we know that people will suffer and the media will do their best (or worst) to add layer upon layer of tackiness to something that is already bad enough. Predictably, this morning one British newspaper has published a photograph of the cardinal with Jimmy Savile. Character assassination or belated justice, who can say? Oughtn’t we to wait before jumping to conclusions either way?

It is precisely in such circumstances that being an ordinary Catholic really counts. We are not powerful people. We don’t know all the ins and outs of the various subjects discussed by the media. We are not privy to official secrets of any kind and have no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who isn’t. No one is very interested in what we think or feel, but we plug away at believing and acting in accordance with our beliefs. We don’t do great things for God, but we do the little things that mark his presence and action in our lives and so allow his grace to touch the lives of others. ‘Without Him we cannot; without us He will not.’ There is the paradox, and the glory, of the ordinary Catholic which no amount of sin or shame can alter.

So, if you are an ordinary Catholic, be encouraged.


20 thoughts on “On Being an Ordinary Catholic”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and calming post. I lament that my church, the Church of England, has yet to post a prayer on its website for the Roman Catholic church, first for wisdom in the selection of the next Pope and secondly for the recent publicity mentioned above. It doesn’t stop me praying for ordinary people leading extraordinarily good lives in humility and faith. Thanks be to God.

  2. Dear Sister – as always your words make so much sense and you put things into perspective.
    Whether I am an Ordinary Catholic or just a Catholic, I haven’t thought much about. I simply live my ordinary Catholic life.

    Whatever is the truth about the allegations against Cardinal O’Brien, he will need our prayers. As always in such a case the media is one-sided and will jump to conclusion immediately, so nothing new there.

    As you well know, the abusive emails and comments say nothing about your community, but everything about the sender. That any person will want to put him/herself down on such a low level is very sad. Please know that we are many more people out here, who deeply appreciate and value everything you do and stand for.

    Today I will pray in a special way for your community.
    May you have a blessed day.

  3. It’s saddening that the community suffers nasty emails and is abused in this way. Also the idea that Catholics are a public enemy. Madness!

    Be encouraged that Christian from other denominations are praying for the Catholic Church. For good outcomes in electing a new Pope and a stop to this madness/abusive attitude which is being shown by a ignorant few.

    Pray Gods peace be with your community and His love demonstrated in all that you do.

  4. I suppose it is a natural human tendency to want to find scapegoats – so much easier to point the finger at perceived evil in others than recognize the sin in ourselves. But it is truly dreadful when ‘ordinary’ members of any institution are stereotyped and receive hate-mail because of historical or structural failures for which they are not responsible or treated with suspicion because of the sins of others. It makes me want to weep when you have received such. You may be doing ‘greater things for God’ than you know. You do indeed “do the little things that mark his presence and action in our lives and so allow his grace to touch the lives of others.” I’m one of those whose life has been touched by God’s grace through your blog posts. Thank you and thanks be to God.

    • I can only agree with you Nancy, in having been touched by the grace of God through this community.
      I am very grateful for having come across this blog which always gives good food for thought.
      I have learned a lot just by reading Sister Catherine’s very sensible and down to earth posts… I feel enriched and blessed.

  5. Catherine,
    Thank you, as ever and always, for your encouraging words. As an Anglican priest who affirms the one holy catholic apostolic Church I understand and concur totally with your descriptions and definitions of an ‘ordinary Catholic’ despite my catholicity being with a small ‘c’.
    I have just returned from doing one of my primary school assemblies. Today we talked about saints, it being St David’s day on Friday. I asked the children what made a saint, we all decided that a saint was a holy person, someone who was good and loving, someone who was generous, and like David, someone who drops the little things in life to concentrate on the big things, being loving, generous and putting other peoples concerns before one’s own.
    I am continually enthralled and excited by what I hear from children – ‘out of the mouths of babes’ &c. We all have the capability to be ordinary Catholics and ordinary catholics, we all have the capability to be saints. As you say so eloquently, jumping on band wagons, slinging mud, and generally looking for someone to blame doesn’t actually achieve anything except more pain and heart-ache.
    The saints pray for you and your community sister, as you take on other peoples anger, pain and suffering.
    God bless.

  6. I am sad that this has happened. While not now a Catholic I’m ashamed that the Catholic Church is being villified in this way. It’s all to easy to use incidents like the one concerning Cardinal O’Brien to label every one who is Catholic and to make them scapegoats.

    I was very sad to see the Cardinal tried in the media before he had even had the opportunity to defend himself. Surely if he is taking legal action such speculation is contempt of court?

    We said intercessory prayers for the Catholic Church in our Holy Communion service this morning, particularly those currently entering conclave to elect the next Pope and the situation concerning Cardinal O’Brien.

  7. I have to agree that it hurts to be blamed for mistakes that are not ours. It hurts to see people gleefully trying to discredit every aspect of Catholicism rather than rationally discussing the problems that occur. I do worry about the effect on people, especially youngsters, who seem to be confronted with negative portrayals of Catholics on a daily basis. We need to be strong, look to the good people around us (There are many) for example and of course, pray for each other.

  8. Little things/little ways, very teresa of liseux.

    Our Church can , of course , embrace all human errors but the most vociferous judges seem to be the guilty parties!

  9. Thank you for all your comments and sharing your insights. There is a remark of Teilhard de Chardin (not an original one, but he made it very personal) to the effect that the Church is like a mist which simultaneously reveals and conceals the Light of Christ. I find that helpful. Those who want to reduce the life of the Church to single-issue concentration on her teachings about/record on paedophilia/homosexuality/contraception/capitalism/whatever miss the point. It is CHRIST we proclaim. Nothing less will do.

  10. Sorry you are being vilified for the alleged sins of others. I was trying to put it to someone two days ago that we can’t declare someone guilty when we don’t know the facts but he had made his mind up. I find this sad and somewhat frightening. If only we could remember we are all sinners and offer the compassion to others we would wish to receive ourselves.

  11. It serves any cause to feel that it is put upon and downtrodden. It creates within the believers that sense of injustice that helps create a bond. We all do out. Sir Alex Ferguson has built football teams on the victim model.
    Please have your faith and belief and say your prayers if that is what you wish. I am sure many hold their views with sincerity and gain comfort. Please try however to limit the paranoia and in your reflections understand that many of us believe that where their might be at least 100 billion galaxies to suggest that one faith or creed has the answer is laughable and impedes our search for understanding. We are products of the times we live in. Your leader used to believe that Hitler was a force for good. Your church Im afraid has a history of intolerance whether it was Copernicus through to a homosexual in the 21st century and at the centre of it is the abuse of power the cover ups and the secrecy and the need not to believe in a faith but to support an instiution and the hierarchy of control it seeks to maintain. Real people have had their lives ended or ruined. Im afraid Cardinal O’Brien has been very quick to moralise over others but four of your own flock felt the need to go public on him. Let the truth out. It may be time for a much greater and independent accountability . Happy lives and peace to you all.

    • You have taken advantage of the courtesy extended to you by this blog to make assertions which are demonstrably false, e.g. Pope Benedict was forced into the Hitler Youth, as were others of his generation, but deserted. You have also insinuated more e.g. your apparent presumption of Cardinal O’Brien’s guilt. (I don’t know whether he is guilty or not and believe we should avoid presumption either way, as I state clearly above: that is a matter of simple justice, not faith.) As to your other points, I think they suggest a rather perfunctory reading of history; nor do you seem to understand the meaning of the word paranoia. Could it be you have read what I wrote through the prism of your own prejudice?

  12. Thank you for that response. It was very much what I expected. Regardng your assertion of me “taking advantage of the courtesy extended” to me, perhaps the facts may assist. You, through the public forum of Twitter, tweeted directing anyone who saw it to your blog. When there readers were invited to comment. I did all of the above as any other person. I didnt realise that any special courtesy was being extended to me or that I might need vetting. If instead your interest was not on opinions but upon receiving approbation then perhaps it may assist if in future you indicate this. As for the other matters in your rather intemperate response. I received an excellent first degree in Psychology from one of Scotland’s leading niversities and therefore i am very familar with the range of defintions of paranoia. I would direct you to DSM IV universally used as with the WHO ICD 10 to define personality by clinicians and other professionals. I am more than aware of the youth Benedict’s role in Hitler Youth and indeed that of his older brother and you would be aware of the alteration to his biography by the Vatican on this. In respect of the former Cardinal there is no presumption whatever on my part. As a qualified lawyer I am stating the need for truth. It is of note however that you express little concern for the four of your own flock. In respect of my vew of history, there is not enough space hear to list the crimes against humanity perpetrated by those in your church in the name of your church but more than that is the simple failure over the years of the Papacy to be comfortable with any established scientific fact. My partiuclar favourite is the Vatican response to Darwin. however a better illustration for you is Copernicus who established that the earth, contrary to your teachings, was not the centre of this galaxy let alone the universe but had to give imstruction that he was dead before his work was published. Galilieo, was declared heretic by the cardinals in Rome in 1513 for his support of Copernicus. Threatened by torture, Galileo was forced to deny Copernicus. The Catholic Church did not take back that sentence until Oct. 13th 1992. Im afraid we need no lectures on a perfunctory consideration of history. You are correct that as an individual I see the world through my version – just like you and ever other human. Its the fact that you think you dont that worries me. The difference is I dont want to stop you doing what you do. I would take all steps to encourage you to continue in this way as it will serve as a constant reminder of the compelling need for vigilance on the part of free thinking people. I shall continue as long as I live to laugh and love, to care for others, to pleasure my body and that of other consenting adults, and to feel the wonder of the world and promote the search for truth free of the dogma and need for control that is characteristic of the institution you serve. It is the premium given to control, adherance and obedience that provides the catalyst for the abuse and misuse of your own followers. I am pleased I live in a time when such matters are subject correctly to scrutiny. I shall certainly not visit this site again but it would greatly assist my status if you were to block me and speak of me in hushed tones. Let the light in and Peace be with you Sister.

    • I’d call what you have written a rant, quite out of keeping with the tone of this blog and its readers. I shall not block you, but I am grateful that you will not be visiting the site again. It is understood by those who do visit it regularly that comments are written in a polite manner and, in particular, that attacks on individuals are not allowed. That goes for those you might think of as ultra-Catholic, too.

  13. Thank you. It is so difficult to discuss what has happened when we don’t know the facts and I don’t know how to react personally. I have sought out many articles and writings on the Cardinal since his retrial and I have also had questions posed to me by family as we had met with the Cardinal only 1 week prior to the stories being published. When we met with him we had our photograph taken and I have been asked “how do you feel about your children having their photo taken with him now?” I do not see the relevance of this question and I struggle to see why my faith should be questioned in response to the actions of others. I have a deep respect for the person that I have known to be Cardinal O’Brien and until we know more about what may or may not have happened in the past I will reserve judgement. If I ever find that I am perfect perhaps I will feel able to judge the actions of others but in my life I have made many mistakes and errors of judgement therefore perfection is beyond my grasp.
    In Faith and Prayer,

    • You are quite right, Jenny, to withhold judgement on the Cardinal. We do not know exactly what he is charged with or by whom, and we still presume innocence until there is either acknowledgement or proof of guilt. Otherwise we are guilty of defamation of character, which is a serious offence— just as sexual abuse or abuse of power is.

      A gay friend of mine wrote to me privately to say that Cardinal O’Brien was one of the very first to minister to AIDS sufferers (at a time when everyone was so scared of the disease that doctors and nurses were still destroying their clothes if they came into contact with anyone with AIDS) but all those to whom he reached out were now dead and so no one would remember. We do well to recall that we are all sinners, all flawed, but some do more good than the media are ready to admit.

  14. I suppose that’s what sets people apart: there are those with opinions of the life choices of others but they still afford every person the same level of respect and there are those who offer respect based upon their own perceptions of how an individual lives their life.
    I believe that no matter what Cardinal O’Brien’s personal opinions were about the lifestyle of others he would treat each and every person with kindness and respect. He may have spoken out about key issues but he did not lose sight of the humanity of the individual.
    I am often swayed on my view of contenscious issues yet this does not mean that I see individuals in any other light than who they are.
    What has happened has rocked my view of the church and stories of the internal workings of the Vatican are at odds with what I would have considered. The positive effect has been the reminder that we are all only human and I put my faith in God helping me to live in his shadow.
    Your blog has given me a lot to reflect on and I seem to consider faith differently as my life progresses. Thank you for helping me reflect.

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