No, I’m not converting to Catholicism, praying to Mary, or going to confession; but for the last year or so I’ve been going down the street to Mission Dolores Church during the week to pray and read the Word. It’s a peaceful refuge from the din of my crowded urban neighborhood in San Francisco and a great place to meet with the Lord. I absolutely love being in the cavernous stone and stained glass sanctuary for relative solitude and quiet. I seldom have the place all to myself, but when I do it’s like being in the Holy of Holies – well, sort of.
I’ve often been accused of being quite verbal (though other words have been used to describe it), so quiet or silent prayer has never really been my forte. When I pray, my lips are usually moving and sound, sometimes a lot of it, is projected out into the air, and I hope also into heaven. Nevertheless, I’ve found that words are less important in some places at some times. Maybe that’s why the Spirit has drawn me to this place, so he can get a word in edgewise, which I might take into consideration in the things I reflect back to him in prayer. (I really only say this as a preemptive strike against a barrage of “Amens” from any of you who think I talk too much.)
Anyway, I was at Mission Dolores the other day wondering, besides the serenity and solitude of it, what it is that keeps drawing me back to the Catholic Church. Three things came to mind: A sense of history, a concern for poverty, and a theology of suffering.
A sense of history
Mission Dolores is the northernmost Catholic mission established as part of the California chain of missions and the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco, dedicated in 1791. There’s both the old mission building with the more modern Basilica next to it. I’m not into the saints, popes, statues, and religious relics. And I don’t subscribe to a lot of Catholic teachings, but going inside this space is like stepping into history.
For some reason I’ve taken a renewed interest in the history of the Church lately. I’ve been reading books and listening to podcasts about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history. More than anything, it’s given me a sense that what we believe and how we act on what we believe is rooted in something much bigger and much longer lasting than just our modern way of believing and doing church. We tend to suffer from spiritual amnesia when we fail to look at the 2000 years of the Church’s existence and, in our spiritual arrogance, assume that our way is somehow the best way. We presume that the way we do things is either exactly the way Paul did it or that our way is an even better way, a more enlightened way, than Paul’s. Being reminded of the failures as well as successes in our history has been helpful for me in trudging forward in our 21st Century context. After all, for better or worse, it is our history. Spending time in this historic church building has been part of that reminder.
A concern for poverty
Another reason I’m drawn to the Catholic Church is the concern that many Catholics have for marginalized and impoverished people around the world. It seems to me that the Catholics have us Evangelicals beat in this regard, especially us Charismatics. In the rear of the mission’s basilica is a spectacular stained glass window of Francis of Assisi. And in the front of the old chapel is a statue of Francis’ friend and colleague, Clare of Assisi. These last few years I’ve been quite taken by compassionate souls such as these, along with others in history like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day.
I’m well aware of the Catholic Church’s abuses of power and money, to say nothing of the epidemic of horrific child abuse cases involving priests. I’m not saying the Catholic Church hasn’t committed more than its share of atrocities and mistakes. I’m just saying that if you’re looking for some inspiring role models in the area of compassion for the poor you might begin with some of these so-called Catholic “saints.” And in my opinion you don’t have to go any further than the current head of their Church, Pope Francis. I’ve never said this before but I’m quite taken by this Pope, who is, in my observation, the real deal, at least in the way he treats the poor. There, I’ve said it. I like the Pope!
A theology of suffering
A number of years ago divorce and cancer tore out of my hands most of what I possessed in the material world. I read everything I could get my hands on about suffering and was shocked to discover that Catholic authors had generated some of the most profound thoughts on the subject. I realized that, unlike most of us Evangelicals – again, Charismatics in particular – the Catholic Church possesses what I’d call a “theology of suffering.” Some Christians believe they can prevent suffering by godly living, others think they can reverse it through the right kind of prayers and right amount of faith, but the Catholics hold a high value in suffering itself.
Though one might criticize the typical Catholic inattention to God’s supernatural intervention to heal and deliver, we have to admit that not all pain and sickness in the world is dissolved through believing prayer. When it is, we thank him, but when it’s not, rather than looking for some value in the pain, many of us keep searching for some new miracle working formula that might be more effective than the one we’ve been using. Don’t get me wrong, I pray for everything I can get my hands on that’s sick or disordered. Sometimes God heals and reorders and sometimes he doesn’t. When he does, I’m amazed and when he doesn’t, well, I guess the fact that I’m not so amazed shows how little faith I have in that area.
But the Catholic writers, the mystics in particular, they knew some things we may have forgotten, that is, “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” You might argue that suffering in itself is not redemptive, as in, it doesn’t have power to save us from hell. Agreed. But it can, in some mysterious way pull us into the heart of God to feel what he feels in a way that nothing else can. I refer to it as “The Sufferer’s Club.”
All that said, I’m happy to be going to the Catholic Church lately. And don’t try to talk me out of it.