Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Alienating Our Own

A few months ago my cousin, a Catholic as most of my family is, let me in on a conversation she'd had with a guest at a common Baptist friend's wedding. She was asked which church she went to- as an ice breaker, to which she replied, "a Catholic church". The answer came back promptly: "I pity you." Clearly my cousin carried this in her mind for months and later shared the incident with me.

My wife's cousin was a medical student about 7 years ago. She was attracted to the praise and worship meetings that were organized by Evangelical students, and being a religious Catholic, she felt she'd found something closer to the ideal she imagined Christian worship to be... until she began interacting with her well-meaning Evangelical friends who went to the meetings with her. They were far more interested in "holy huddles" and beyond a cursory smile or friendly hello towards her no real relationships were built, and the ones who did talk to her talked ill about the Catholic faith and just a bit about the Gospel.

Thirteen years ago, in MCC, I came to the Lord, a rare Catholic student on campus and embraced whole-heartedly the fervour and the authenticity of the Evangelical faith I found there. My mom had shared horror stories with me of Protestants, especially Pentecostals; and it was the Lord's grace that overcame much prejudice about them for me to listen to these Christian students and accept the Lord. Mom had let me know of the Pentecostal believers who visited our home to share the Gospel, of their vehemence in ridiculing the Pope and Catholicism. Quasi-Hindu practices such as penance-for-favours practised at shrines like Vailankanni drew their ire and they did not conceal their distaste for these. Mom let me know even before I went to college that the Pentecostals had specifically targetted heavily Catholic countries such as Brazil and transformed it into a Pope-hating, fire-breathing radical Pentecostal community. Her explanation for all this then was that they hated Catholicism. For an impressionable young man, this was a pretty strong seed of prejudice.

On campus in MCC, after I became a Christian, I found great joy in my new faith. I also read with a friend a book about Francis of Assissi in a book called 'A New Kind of Fool' written by an Indian Franciscan monk whose talent in music, art, photography and poetry combined to make this book an intimate look at Francis. The monk traveled through Assissi and many other places of interest to Francis-researchers and captured his impressions in art, poems, snapshots and sheet music. The life of Francis took my breath away. I was amazed to find such depth of faith. A page in the book carried a black and white photograph of an unpaved road somewhere near Assissi. The author captions it this way (my paraphrasing): "These old roads carry a special signficance, because somewhere along these roads, Francis saw a leper, dismounted from his horse and ran to embrace him." This did not go down very well with most of my friends in college. We had long discussions about Catholicism, mostly criticisms from them and nuanced agreements from me. More than the fact that Catholicism had introduced many corruptions into Christianity, my displeasure in these disputes with brothers I loved dearly was that their dismissal of Catholics and their faith was simplistic and somewhat aggressive. True friends of the Reformation they were, as I myself turned out to be later (I still am- except that I would like be a kinder gentler friend).

I did realize of course that the word Catholicism means different things to different people. There have been people who turned to Catholicism like Chesterton and Muggeridge and others who were influenced strongly by it like CS Lewis. Francis lived in a time before the Reformation began, when there was only one mainstream church- and that was the Roman Catholic Church. Besides the practises of the church that drew Martin Luther's ire came to that extend of corruption much later than Francis' time. The later Catholic Reformation did much to clear these after the Protestant Reformation had done its work. But apart from a few believers I heard the oft-repeated criticisms of the Catholic church from my friends.

Three years later I was working in India and visiting at a believing friend's house. He and his wife talked of how a Hindu friend did not want to confess his new-found Christian faith to his orthodox Brahmin parents. He later married a Christian girl from a Brahmin background and they had a Hindu-style wedding with a former Hindu priest-turned-Christian officiating, somehow fooling the parents that he was chanting Hindu mantras! What was remarkable was that my friends believed that this was allright, while they simply could not think that a Catholic could remain in his church and be a believer.

When I listen to the retelling of Catholics' brushes with the Protestant crowd, I get the feeling that we are back in the times of the Reformation. Catholicism has greatly changed and is continually changing, and is differently practised in different parts of the world. For instance, the high theology of Pope Benedict XVI does not find any takers in syncretistic India where new age practices like Pranic Healing is practised by some in the clergy. Muggeridge and Chesterton remain names to be learned in Indian seminaries, with none of their thinking permeating the policies and practises of dioceses. Many heroes of the Christian faith could be found in Catholicism- Henri Nouwen and Josef Damien come to mind. We know that the average lay Catholic anywhere in the world pay no more than lip service to men like these. After all they are not 'canonized'.

Catholicism has a lot to settle in its cesspool of beliefs, in order that the core beliefs of Christianity may remain and all else may be weeded out. But we Evangelicals are guilty- in more instances than not- of ignoring one of basic tenets of our faith: charity. Jesus, as the prologue to John's gospel says, was full of grace and truth. We may have truth on our side (if as we say we are true to the Scriptures) but we have no grace to give in what we say or do to these Catholic brethren.

It is tough to witness to my relatives, not least because their few interactions with Evangelicals has scarred them. We have talked ad nauseam about the Gospel, the non-existent dichotomy between faith and works, the validity of the Catholic argument about the written tradition of the Word and the oral tradition that is supposedly enshrined within the Magisterium of the church and all other areas of conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. The disconnect is so much that this has ramifications in the political level. Strong pro-lifers turn pro-choice, their faith in Christian teachings deteriorate and many turn to other religions such as Hinduism which claims to be a religion that "accepts all" in peace, although the logical and historical invalidity of this statement they do not necessarily delve into.

Why do we alienate those who are willing to listen? If salt loses its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? Catholics are, arguably, those closest to us in terms of faith. They embrace mystery and paradox which many of our churches have lost as a result of the almost Deistic effect that our interpretations of Sola Scriptura have had on us. We may have good reason to question some of these mysteries, but the fact is we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In many churches this may not be true. Indeed many Evangelicals embrace the mysticism of A'Kempis and Bonhoeffer (who was Lutheran). But it simply isn't true of the majority.

Is it strange at all that churches that advocate mystic experiences that should give us pause- like the 'Latter Rain' movement- have sprung up in Protestantism? When we lose the mystery of communing with God, we feel the urgent need to replace it with something. After all, God is so mysterious and his judgments past finding out- we need to hear from Him badly. I think it will take years and years of right living and gentle corrections to win back Catholics, not to mention Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and others. Many were drawn to Jesus not because he kept contradicting them (which he did often), but because of his compassion- and the Bible says that they were like sheep without a shepherd.

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