The Glory of Being an Ordinary Catholic

This post is addressed to my fellow Catholics, to all those who, like me, have no special claims to being anything in particular, who wear their Catholicism as I wear my habit, a habit handed down across the centuries, a little shabby-looking to outsiders, perhaps, but comfortable and close-fitting, not something assumed but a constituent part of our identity. I think sometimes we allow others to find fault in us for the very thing that is our glory: our ordinariness. Today’s feast, of SS Cosmas and Damian, takes us back to the first centuries of the Church, to a time when Christianity was as much misunderstood as it is nowadays but still had its first youthful elan. We are one with those early Christians in our faith, our sacraments, our very being; and that is no small thing to celebrate.

There are times, I must confess, when I become irritated with those who try to monopolise Catholicism, to reduce it to their own particular interpretation of what is right and fitting. There was Mass before there was the Ordinary Form; there was Mass before there was the Extraordinary Form; we used Greek before we used Latin or any of the vernaculars of the present day; there were Catholics who knew and cared about the traditions of the Church long before there was a Latin Mass Society, an Ordinariate, a Society of St Pius X, or any of the infinite number of oganizations who make large claims for their stewardship of the Church’s patrimony. The reason is simple: we have an unbroken link with the early Church; we have grown, changed, developed, but we have never had to work things out from first principles, as it were. We are part of a family and share its spiritual DNA. It is a given.

Those who, like me, grew up in the England of the 1950s and 1960s, when to be Catholic was still to be suspect and a barrier to membership of certain clubs and organizations, when we were still struggling to build schools and churches — many of them of supreme ugliness  because we didn’t have enough money to build better — may look back with false nostalgia, thinking things were better then. The truth is, the Church exists in an eternal now, an eternal present; there never was any better time than now. We ordinary Catholics have never been very impressive, never will be very impressive; but that is not what matters. It is the earnestness with which we seek to follow Christ, our everyday efforts to live the gospel, our very acceptance of sin and failure and attempts to do better that mark us out as not only ordinary but also graced beings. Perhaps today we could all take encouragement from this fact: to be an ordinary Catholic is precisely what we are meant to be. We just have to be the best we can.


Saints Cosmas and Damian and the Christians of the Middle East

Today is the feast of SS Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who were born in what is now Turkey, practised medicine or surgery in Roman Syria and were martyred for their faith in about 287. They illustrate the way in which the liturgy often focuses mind and heart on issues of the day. The media may ignore the extermination of Christianity in the Middle East, the profoundly difficult moral issues faced by members of the medical profession, the relationship between religion and the State, but the Church cannot. She is right there in the midst of it all, and her popes have articulated both her concerns and her challenges. Pope after pope has drawn attention to the way in which Christians in the Middle East have suffered persecution; pope after pope has argued for the development of a medical ethics that respects our humanity as well as our science; pope after pope has challenged the attempts of the State to limit human freedom. One of the problems with all this, however, is our ability to listen selectively. As with Fr Antonio Spadaro’s recent interview with Pope Francis, so with much else. Our fondness for the soundbite wrenched from context means that we don’t always get the message right. We hear what we want to hear, and no more.

Let us ask the prayers of SS Cosmas and Damian — for Syria; for the medical profession; for Christians being driven out of their homes in the Middle East; but, above all, for the grace of understanding. So many of our problems stem from misunderstanding, but healing the wounds of sin and division is an essential part of the Church’s mission, as much today as in the third century.