When I decided to become a Catholic, I didn’t know a single Roman Catholic, except the Irish builder who’d done my family’s loft conversion – and he’d never talked about church.
Yet before I knew a single Catholic personally, I chose to belong to this Church. I chose to belong to this Church because of what I read in books and encyclopaedias.
I read in the Bible that Jesus said, “This is my Body. Do this in memory of me.” I read in the encyclopaedia that while Protestant chapels said the bread didn’t actually become His Body, and Anglicans were divided on the matter, the Catholic Church had always insisted that Jesus meant exactly what he said.
I learned how Catholics not only prayed to Jesus, but also asked the prayers of the saints, and of Mary Mother of Jesus. I read of how Mary had appeared at shrines such as Lourdes and at Fatima, inviting us to pray the rosary. So I made a rosary out of knotted string, so I could do what Mary had asked for.
I read in the Bible that Jesus called on his followers always to look out for one another’s needs, always to forgive each other when things went wrong, and to build a strong community where no-one could get overlooked or ignored.
The Church I read about was beautiful.
When I became a Catholic, I started meeting real live Catholics for the first time. Then I went to University and met more, many more.
Lots of Catholics seemed unsure about whether Jesus was really present in the Blessed Sacrament and in the Tabernacle.
Lots of Catholics hardly ever prayed the rosary, if at all.
There were many occasions in my twenties when I felt quite overlooked and ignored in the places I worshipped. Where were all these Christians who had been taught to reach out to strangers and make them welcome? If they were reaching out, they weren’t reaching as far as me!
There was a gap – a gap between the textbook version of the Catholic Church, and the one I met in reality. But were the books wrong, or was the old saying true? “Do not adjust your set – there’s a fault with reality!”
The Church I discovered in practice was blemished, the beauty lying hidden underneath.
There is no one way of being a Catholic, but there are better ways and poorer ways.
For each one of us, the way we practice our Catholic faith is a mixture of ideas we have received in words, and of imitating other Catholics’ actions.
Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic from our families.
Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic from attending RCIA.
Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic through private instruction from a priest, and through the example of those who gather in this Church each weekend to worship. We may not realise it, but each one of us here, through our behaviour in Church, is a tutor to new and aspiring Catholics.
We must be careful in choosing our role-models! What Catholics do do isn’t always what Catholics, or indeed any followers of Jesus Christ, should do. In the saints, the Church places before us examples of Christians who found different ways of living out the message of Jesus in daily life. But in the community around us, we see ordinary human beings, struggling with temptation, striving to live the message of Jesus – and not always managing it.
The Pharisees had got their priorities wrong by falling into a similar trap – they were emphasising human customs and not attending to the commandments of God. They were imitating what other Jews before them had done – but those customs were not rooted in God’s Law.
Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, the book in which Moses reminds the chosen people of God’s Law. The passage we heard today is followed by a warning to “teach this to your children and your children’s children”. Moses knew that the memory of God’s presence would fade, and unless the community made a conscious decision to remember God’s words and teach them to each new generation, God’s beautiful message would gradually become hidden under the blemishes of people choosing to do their own thing.
This week, those who wish to become Catholic or be confirmed as adults will begin a new journey in faith, taking time on a Tuesday evening to consider in depth what God is asking of them.
This week, you will be invited to consider how our society should use money, in matters of fair wages and just taxation, in a talk on Wednesday evening.
Next weekend, those who wish to deepen their faith by being part of a small group, meeting to look more deeply at God’s Word, will be invited to gather at a barbecue.
These three events offer us an opportunity to explore the roots of our faith in company with others. Or we can choose, in our own time, to pick up the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the letters of the Popes, and read for ourselves the teaching which they give.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves,” says St James. There will be times when what we read in God’s Word doesn’t match the behaviour we see in other members of our community. We’ll be tempted to go along with what the people around us are doing. But that doesn’t always match what the Word of God is asking of us.
I wonder what God’s Word will say to you? And where you will go to hear it? When we seek out God’s Word and choose to live it out in person, we restore beauty to God’s church. When we mistake our own ideas for God’s Law, our church becomes more blemished. The beauty of our community, of God’s Church, depends on you!