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The Catholic Moment: What keeps me Catholic?

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

By Michael Daley

After several enthusiastic invites from a student’s mother, I finally accepted her invitation to attend a large, nondenominational church with her and her family. This was a good “Catholic” family mind you, with years of both local parish involvement and Catholic education. Yet, not only had she stopped practicing Catholicism, she and her family were now committed to this other faith community.

Talking with colleagues about the upcoming trip and the phenomena of Protestant megachurches, our conversations were quick to describe these places as “theology lite” or “all entertainment, no substance.” Arriving there however, I was impressed by the number of volunteers and a felt sense of community. These were people who, despite the size of the church, knew each other and were excited to be there. The free coffee didn’t hurt either.

As the service began, the pastor shared with the community something that he had never done before and something that he thought, given his personality, was next-to-impossible — he’d just been on a silent retreat. It was at a place several hours south, just outside Bardstown, Ky., — the Abbey of Gethsemani.

It was there during his retreat he was introduced to the person of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and most noted American Catholic spiritual writer of the 20th century.

At this point he asked the congregation, “Anybody ever heard of Thomas Merton?” At least half the hands went up.

As much as I wanted to believe that Thomas Merton’s person and writings had transcended religious boundaries (which they have, given the continued popularity of his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain and other books by or about him), I presumed that, like the family who I had come with, most of the people who raised their hands were former Catholics.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, I am well-grounded in this belief. It showed that approximately one-third of the respondents who were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. Across the general population this means that nearly 10 percent of all American adults are former Catholics. Sadly, for me, this includes an older brother.

As much as I want to blame him and the family who invited me to church with them for some defect on their part, in the end, I must give them the benefit of the doubt. The reasons they left are multiple and, at times, very convincing — lack of hospitality and community; irrelevant and uninspiring liturgies; disagreement over church teachings; need for a personal relationship with God; abuse and scandal; irregular marriages; and still others.

All of this has led me to an important and essential question: What keeps me Catholic? As you’ve just read, over the course of our lifetimes we’ve all been given enough reasons to leave and, yet, we stay. We love the church. It’s our home…warts and all. At times, though, we need to focus on our strengths. In the process, we confirm our faith commitment.

Over the course of the next year, I invite you to join me in voicing the reasons as to “what keeps us Catholic.” I’m sure my reasons — community, saints, prayer, Mass, parish, school, word of God, humor, sacramentality, and many more — will be echoed by yours.

Michael Daley is a religion teacher at St. Xavier High School and freelance writer.

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