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The ambiguities of being Catholic

Do we love God, or just want his attention?

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • June 17, 2014
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Perhaps because of my visits to Tokyo I’ve been haunted by images from a film I saw some time ago. The multi-award winning Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, displays a relationship that unfolds between two Americans – a middle-aged man and a younger woman – when they meet in Japan.

Portrayed against the backdrop of Tokyo’s metallic and Perspex landscape, Lost in Translation is the story of two people desperately searching for different things and hoping they can find them in one another.

But they don’t, and they are left at the end of the film with a lonely emptiness both had sought to escape. They are ships that pass in the night, never noticing each other apart from what they want from each other.

It is the portrayal of a relationship that isn’t to be. Each is saying to the other in their own misguided way: “Look at me!” They do not engage with each other or listen, but instead just seek to attract the notice and attention of the other.

Sometimes I think Catholics are like this couple in the way we engage with God. What we want from our faith is all about ourselves rather than God or the faith community we share.

We can have, as Catholics, just as we do in our ordinary relationships every day, a single-minded focus on our needs, what we have sacrificed, what hurt we have endured or what splendid things we have done in our care or service of others.

It’s all about me! And, as a result, we tire of God and we protect ourselves against other people. We overpower what God or other people might ask or want of us; we maintain a relentless focus on our measured contribution and ourselves; we keep away from anyone or anything that might upset the calm and disciplined world we create and control.

And love passes us by – love of God and love of others. As with the two would be lovers who pass as ships in the night, our faith dies and even our love dies for lack of nourishment.

This is the intimately personal level at which we can warp and distort our humanity as well as our Christian faith and all that it holds as a means to grow. It happens almost unconsciously even as we keep telling ourselves we are only doing what seems natural. But we aren’t. Therein lies the ambiguity: apparently good things – loving, serving, believing, worshipping – end up being bad things that distract and destroy.

And there’s something else that complicates this surprise even further. Life cuts both ways and our lives do not simply amount to what we put into them or do with them, inspired or misguided as the contributions may be. The worlds we inhabit – families, workplaces, hobbies, interests, friends, what we see and read – also shape who we are and what we become.

Those influences can enhance or distort us – as individuals, communities and nations, as believers and as Catholics. All of us are parts of cultures that set the terms for how we grow or decline as human beings, as communities, as nations and as a Church.

Rendering the Christian message in words, symbols and structures that communicate across cultures is never easy. What began in Israel two millennia ago was interpreted by Greeks and structured by Romans. Then, 1,500 years after Jesus, all that was challenged when Christianity moved out of its European comfort zone into Asia and then Africa.

In Asia, Christianity got a mixed reception – some were attracted, many repelled it and some sought to exterminate it. The vast majority remained indifferent to what appeared to be a culturally alien import.

Today, the ambiguities of such “culture contact” are no less pressing. The Catholic Church in most parts of Asia is a minority community. Yet its communities and leaders recognize the need for many adaptations to local customs and practices if the person and message of Jesus is to be intelligible in cultures far removed from anything Jesus and the early Christians could be expected to appreciate.

Framing the message in a language and through symbolism that can be grasped by those not familiar with the Greco-Roman culture that Christianity adopted to explain itself is not all that happens when Christianity localizes or “inculturates”.

The cultures to which Christianity reaches for language and symbols also transform elements of the message not often anticipated or even consciously recognized. At times, absorbing a local culture that may be common even to hundreds of millions of people can have the desired effect of sharing the message.

But, often unconsciously, elements of particular cultures can contribute to massive distortions of the Christian message.

Historical examples abound – from popes who ordered torture and executions as ways of defending the Catholic faith to Catholic communities who hated and killed Jews because they allegedly were responsible for killing Jesus.

Some cultural absorption and adaptation is necessary, as is evident in the way Catholics celebrate sacraments. The Passover, the use of water in baptism and the use of oil in several sacraments, are obvious instances of the employment of pre-existing symbolism to express Christian beliefs.

However, there is the use of cultural and political forms developed from European historical models that are today simply anachronistic, such as the monarchical papacy and the titles used by cardinals and bishops. And then there are cultural adoptions that are downright sinister and a contradiction of the Gospel, some of them operating in Asia.

Many Asian societies have inherited cultural patterns of respect, organizational hierarchy and the allocation of status that come from cultures developed long before the Gospel was preached in them. Yet, and presumably unconsciously, Catholics, especially clerics, can model patterns of authority and social status that owe more to the native culture than the Gospel.

Because Confucian societies may place clerics on a special pedestal as learned and superior beings, the clerics can come to see themselves as authoritative and significant people who don’t need to seek out and serve the needy and the humble. In Buddhist and Hindu cultures, religious people can be seen as “special” and otherworldly rather than engaged in the world of everyone else, with its pains and uncertainties.

Hiding in a status and suffocating the Gospel are easy traps to fall into in any culture unless there is the circuit breaker of an objective look at our behavior in the light thrown on it by the person and message of Jesus. Otherwise, hypocrisy reigns.

The ambiguity of people who are falsifying the faith that they believe themselves to be the successful embodiment of is not far from the ambiguity of two people who think they’re in love with each other but haven’t really met.

Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly is executive director of ucanews.com

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