By Kathy Coffey
Editor's Note: This commentary was first published July 19, 2010 on the Patheos website.
Where would I like to see the Catholic church move next? In a radical direction, meaning "back to its roots."
Over time, any institution becomes self-protective, guarding itself. Anyone who doubts this should remember the transition from being childless to becoming a parent. For most people, the drinking tapers off, the parties end earlier, and the driving becomes more cautious. While this may also be due to growing older, it's clearly motivated by the small, vulnerable person who's now in our care.
Extrapolate that to a large, international institution like the Catholic Church, and it becomes clear how customs can become entrenched. For efficient operation, rules are necessary -- but they aren't all that we're about.
Unfortunately, many now know Catholics only by what they oppose: same-sex marriage, women's ordination, abortion, etc. In the future, let's be known by what we advocate. Let's focus on the positive. At the very beginning gushed forth a wellspring of compassionate life so dramatic that centuries haven't quenched it. Let's hear that call of Jesus again -- to love the "other," to do justice for the weakest members of our society, to savor the beauties of this world, to serve God magnanimously. Jesus was so wildly inclusive he dined with Judas at his last supper, and according to everything we're taught, must love the serial killer as much as Francis of Assisi.
Let's return to the gospels, first and foremost, for the template of the people we should become. Then let's look more deeply at the mystics, a treasure too long neglected. Writings from Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henri Nouwen, and many other rich sources could nurture spirituality for a lifetime. And this just skims the surface. For more on these life-giving figures, see Enduring Grace by Carol Lee Flinders or my Women of Mercy.
Our spiritual heritage from these great ones teaches us the inner peace that no external force can destroy. It enables us to share a vision worthy of our founder, our long tradition, and ourselves. Colossians 1:19 says of Jesus: "in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell." We share in that fullness: if we believe that, it should put an end to our bickering, greed, and warfare. As Henri Nouwen says, it doesn't really matter how much you do or how many people you know. What matters is that you are internally at peace. That peace becomes our gift to our families, colleagues, friends, and eventually the world.
Given the challenges the human race will face in the next century, Christians can't waste time judging, carping, and condemning. Let's get on with the task of being Christ to a hungry, hurting world.
Kathy Coffey is a national speaker, retreat leader, and the author of numerous articles in Catholic periodicals, including America, U.S. Catholic, St. Anthony Messenger, and Catechumenate. She has written many award-winning books on women, sacraments, and Catholic spirituality; her most recent book is Mary, a volume in Orbis Books' Catholic Spirituality for Adults series.
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