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.