In a scene from the excellent movie “St. Vincent”, (a comedy starring Bill Murray), a young boy named Oliver goes to a new school. In his first day in class the teacher, Brother Geraghty, asks Oliver what is his religion. Oliver responds, I think I’m Jewish. Geraghty smiles, welcomes him and lets him know that that’s a new one for the class; but that there are already, Buddhists, Protestants, atheists, as well as the fastest growing religion, “nothing in particular”. However, Geraghty then notes that there’s also Catholics, which is the best religion, and asks Oliver if he knows why. Before Oliver can answer Geraghty beams at him and says: it’s because Catholics have the most rules!
Given how we were typically introduced to the Faith (10 Commandments, 7 Deadly Sins, 8 Beatitudes, no meat on Friday, etc.) it wouldn’t surprise me if Geraghty’s description doesn’t resonate with many of us. A significant factor in how we perceive Catholicism has a lot to do with when our learning tapered off. As we know, in pretty much any area of life, we all need to start with the basics or rules. If you asked most young children to describe their relationship with their parents, I suspect a big part of their answer would say that parents make all kinds of rules: about safety, bedtime, manners, homework and so forth. For many Catholics, their learning effectively ended at some point in childhood, and from then on, we have muddled through our lives and our relationship with God in somewhat of a rule-based understanding.
As an adult, trying to learn more about Catholicism, both about the teachings and its purpose in our lives, I’ve been struck by both its sophistication and its simplicity. That viewed at a basic or simplistic level, it does indeed strike you as one rule after another, seemingly designed to take the fun out of life. But as you get a little below the surface a number of things emerge.
The biggest realization for me was to understand that the Church’s teachings, conveying the essence of Jesus ministry, are meant to lead us to happiness. And not just in the hereafter but today and now. The truth is that God our Father loves us and wants nothing but for us to be happy and enjoy life to the fullest. Just like children, we often don’t understand the purpose of these teachings and can be quick to dismiss anything that constrains our ego or doesn’t appear to deliver immediate benefit. We can have a tendency to associate happiness with excess or self-indulgence, at the unfortunate sacrifice of a deeper joy.
The second thing I observed, is that God has a way to reach (catch?) all of us regardless of our station in life or capabilities. Jesus first audiences and followers were simple people with little or no education. He spoke in parables using local metaphors so everyone could begin to understand His message. He essentially simplified the commandments to two (love God and your Neighbor), and most importantly, He lived a life that exemplified God’s love up to and including accepting His own crucifixion. His message was incredibly clear: God and salvation are accessible to all - The Good News.
“But wait, there’s more!”. While not in anyway undermining Jesus simple message, His teachings, when studied both prayerfully and intellectually, have challenged and engaged some of the greatest minds of their time from St. Paul, to St Thomas Aquinas (13th century), to more recently Pope Benedict XVI, devoting their lives to more fully understand God’s plan for mankind.
Soon we will begin the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) journey for this coming year. In simple terms, this is the process through which adults are initiated into the Catholic Church. Hopefully all of us participating in this journey, can approach the teachings of the Church with “fresh eyes” and an open heart, to see beyond the rules, to the love of God behind them.