Recently I had a conversation with a relative and dear friend about religion. Being raised in faith that felt to her to be heavily tainted with superstition, she often uses the word “religion” as she might any other distasteful thing that gets in our way of knowing and loving Jesus and God, Our Father. I understand what she seems to be saying. She didn’t embrace her faith until she was older; ready; and called. Her experience growing up was perhaps a negative one, so when she shares with great fervor, her love of Christ and her faith, she often categorizes it by saying she surpassed the negative effects of religion. I happen to be listening to a well-known broadcast of Christian sermons earlier that same day, and the speaker was also discussing, with disdain, “religion”. The message was about knowing God, Our Father, and how religion can stand in the way of that relationship, if by causing shame or other emotions that make us feel unworthy of knowing Him. I agree, that which comes from fear, not love, is certainly, not of God. But is “religion” the word we really want to toss about?
Having worked as a state employee for six years, one thing I am not fond of is smashing the bits out of a word unless it is “just right” and “fits” every single person’s taste until it is widely accepted to be used for a generation in a unoffensive way, until a “better” word comes along. We all have felt the power of words. They can be life-giving such as God’s HOLY WORD in the bible, or a kind word of support from a loved one in difficult times; yet we also know in this modern age of technology and access, how damaging words can become if used with a sense of distaste or resentment. The good and bad thing about a word like “religion“, is that it has been around for so long and meant so many things to so many people over centuries. That being said, the difference in speaking about “religion” and something of an experience in a particular “church” should be noted. In my experience of my Catholic Faith, “religion” is revered word in which I picture the whole of our faithful and the way we practice; or the women and men who have devoted their lives and forsaken all earthly goods and become priests and “religious“. I have spent many years getting to know many consecrated religious who have made such a difference in my life, and helped me grow in faith through spiritual guidance. I think many Catholics understand the word “religion” to be similar if not equal to the concept of “church” or “faith“.
I imagine if I were a non-believer, or a non-Christian; someone who perhaps has not experience their own call yet, I might be intimidated by the world of faith and the concept of God. To whom do we turn? Google? I liken it to be coming to this planet as an alien and seeking a way to understand the concept of food for the first time. People say “try a restaurant, that’s the best way to understand food.” So you look for restaurant choice, and upon entering, the chef says something like “Oh, restaurants really get in the way of understanding food. They are not what they are supposed to be. It’s all tainted.” In your mind you may think, if you knew nothing at all about food; what kinds, where to buy it, how to prepare it; you may just say “forget it then.” I don’t want to mention that baby in the bathwater, but, you know, there is still something significant here. “Restaurants”, may not all be kosher. They may not prepare the food the right way always, and definitely not to everyone’s specific taste. Religion may not be perfect because of the human element which will always exist as long as people are involved. Churches may not prepare a message the way you want to hear it. They may use “ingredients” you don’t want to have in your spirituality and that’s up for consideration, however, here is the key: Christ. Christ is the center of the issue to which I am appealing, and at the heart of all Christian churches. There are those who say “Jesus hated religion”. I believe “religiosity” is what he detested. Hypocritical church leaders that were focused on how they looked when they prayed (Matthew 6:5), or what was being paid to the church, or where they sat at the wedding feast and other places of potential honor (Matthew 23, Mark 7:1-13). He discriminated between those who consider themselves to be so aligned with the law, that it over-road mercy and love for fellow man. Those who put man before God. There is also a rigid sense of religiosity that may separate our hearts from thinking they cannot receive mercy, that another person in authority judges us and we are “bad”. It may not even be a person who suggested this to us. It is most likely our “inside voice” (better known as the “Accuser” or Satan) which told us we weren’t good enough to be loved by God . Pope Francis has devoted this entire year “The Year Of Mercy”, addressing this lie. “We are all sinners,” but “God is greater than our sin. Let us not forget this: God is greater than our sin.” (March 30, 2016, Vatican City).
The church, however, belongs to Christ. “The Bride of Christ”, as “she” is called, is revered; his love; his carefully planned, well-appointed way for us to understand him and love him, and serve him. He ordained the first priests, sent the 72 out to forgive sins and heal in his name, even though he was soon to follow them out (Luke 10:1-12). Jesus gave us our first Pope, from whom all others descended in ordained lineage from Peter, the rock upon whom he built his church, (Matthew 16:13-20). Reading the Acts of the Apostles is a fascinating way to understand the methods used to establish the practices for the church that lives on today.
Words are important, but it is with a particular attitude that we must proceed in prudence to discuss faith in any form. Jesus himself told us to be aware of divisive tactics. “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (NABRE Mark 3:25).
It is difficult not to take up issue without offense in most situations. The most beautiful thing is that in most cases, when discussing such matters with a fellow Christian who really knows and loves Jesus, it isn’t a usual platform for division. In all earnestness, when Christians discuss things with the love of God at the heart of their intentions, most issues either resolve amicably or with agreement to “disagree” out of respect for one another. Best of all, we learn so much about each other and how to love through conflict, once we come to the resolution.
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Since writing this original post I found an article on Zenit (http://zenitenglish.cmail19.com/t/ViewEmail/d/C084A94C4799F569/6A657CB4DF313D55C9C291422E3DE149) that related Pope Francis’ recent audience with Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity:
The Pope said that agreement on how we understand the Gospel is not enough, because there must be union in Christ.
“It is our personal and community conversion, our gradual conformation to Him, our living increasingly in Him, that enables us to grow in communion between us,” he said, adding that this communion is the “soul that also supports sessions of study and every other type of effort to arrive at more closely aligned points of view.”
In the heated week of this country’s election, I have been “evangelized” by a few beautiful Christians who felt it was their Christian duty to align me away from my Catholic faith into their own point of view. I had the courage to say to the most recent, “If we don’t come together as Christians and focus our efforts together then our own house will fall, and we will be a nation further divided.” I was proud to see the quiet but firm results of that in the outcome of the election. We are a silent majority together. When we start criticizing one’s methods of worship, we are beginning to fall off the grid of brotherly love. We should come together to evangelize those in the world who do not know Christ, and peck like chickens at the perfect ways to do that another time. We are in a major spiritual battle in this nation. We will keep the favor of God when we love one another and reach out to others to share that love. Do know why I am Catholic? ABSOLUTELY. Do you know why you believe what you do? I hope so. Let’s work on the people who don’t know what to believe. We will do that by our love for one another.