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Why I am a Catholic

I was helpless, so he saved me. . .

by Edmund Campion

If you ask me why I am still a Christian, I could answer with a story. Years ago I was on an author tour, promoting a book I had written, and a radio person threw in a final, tricky question: 'Do you think you'll stay in the church?'. Surprised, I heard myself reply: 'Oh, there are always difficulties about being a Catholic; but that doesn't mean that Christ didn't rise from the dead'.

At the back of my mind must have been the story of how James McAuley replied to a priest who told him he was worried that McAuley's political disagreements with Cardinal Gilroy might destabilise the faith of this recent convert. 'Because my bishop is a liar and a schemer', McAuley is supposed to have said, 'why do you suppose that this somehow disproves the fact that Christ rose from the dead?' Or perhaps I was remembering the delight, even the surprise, of a Sydney Anglican group when I told them, in reply to some puzzled questions, 'the fundamental doctrine of the Roman Catholic church is not the papacy; the fundamental doctrine of the Roman Catholic church is that "the Lord Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification"'. As the headmistress, Betty Archdale, used to tell her girls at Abbotsleigh, 'Remember, girls, Roman Catholics are Christians'.

In short, I remain a Christian because Christ remains alive to me and I continue to know him as a saviour, a brother and a friend. As the psalmist says, 'He saved me because he loved me; by his wounds we are healed; I was helpless, so he saved me'.

This is a continuing truth in my life as he helps me daily by his grace to become the Edmund Campion I was created to become; and not to become the other, the failed human being: lazy, wasteful of talents, prayerless and careless, homophobic, sexist and even racist, ungenerous of mind and niggardly of heart. Each of these words is an admission of failure, of sin. Each too is a cry for help, a cry for Christ - one I know he will hear. Believe me: I know. The year 1960 was the worst year of my life, when the hand of the church seemed turned against me. In that horrible year Jesus entered my life as never before, closer and deeper, as friend and healer; and in forty years I have never lost that sense of his friendship.

So if you ask me why I am still a Christian, the answer will come along these kinds of pathways. But you are asking me a tighter question: why am I still a Catholic? My response: the Christ of the gospels lives today as the Christ of the Eucharist. Christ is not bound in the covers of a book; he lives beyond the book, as a people - and a eucharistic people at that.

In history all attempts to unpeople Christ, to make him a saviour by the book alone, have been self-defeating. He is indeed found in the book; but the voice in the book calls you into a communion bigger than literature. Think about it and you will recognise there is no such thing as mere Christianity; it is always an adjectival Christianity: Protestant, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic - whatever - Christianity. If I am to follow Christ, I must follow him with other Christians. Christianity means a tradition, it means a history.

So what of the Catholic tradition of Christianity? The size of that tradition alone creates problems: twenty centuries of history and today one-sixth of the human race - every sixth person alive today is a Roman Catholic - the good and bad all mixed together. This means you have to accept some uncomfortable family members, if you claim the Catholic name. Not for you the selectivity of the Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography (1994), whose editor wrote in his introduction:

It has been difficult to find and report on the failures, the villains, the ones who fell away, the ones who, perhaps, embezzled the church funds or misbehaved with the choir boys. Candidly, as a matter of policy, this Dictionary is designed to capture the lives of those who did stand firm in their faith.

The editor of a Catholic biographical dictionary who followed that example would be accused of dishonesty. There have been too many priests in prison and too many Catholics on the scaffold, from Ned Kelly to Ronald Ryan, to whitewash our story. Anyway, why would we want to do that? We were the church of the convicts and we continue to be a church for criminals, for failures, for sinners. Once a heckler came into a church and shouted at the priest, 'You're all hypocrites'; to which the priest replied, 'There's always room for one more'. Only sinners can join or belong to this church.

I recall my first visit to Rome, nearly forty years ago, as a very new priest. My hostess, a highborn Italian lady, had lived in Australia for a few years and she despised the Irish Catholicism she had found here - inexperienced, naive, innocent, unnuanced, untouched by reality, as she thought. So on my first night in Rome she said to me, 'Eddie, tomorrow I am going to show you a hat shop run by the mistress of one of the cardinals'. And she looked at me closely, to perceive the dismay or shock or perhaps embarrassment which would surely register on the face of a neophyte Australian priest. She was, I think, somewhat disappointed at my lack of confusion as I told her, 'But, Gegi, I expect cardinals to have mistresses'.

This encounter came back to my mind recently, when two Trotskyist friends told me forcibly that they were scandalised to hear that Rome was thinking of canonising or beatifying some bishop, a Croatian or Hungarian, whom they thought of as a war criminal or at best a collaborator. 'A war criminal, a saint!' they jeered. I replied with what insouciance I could muster, 'But you have to be a war criminal (or potentially one) to get into the Catholic Church. It is a church for war criminals'. Which is why I am there. It is, as Dr George Pell has said, a hospital for sinners as well as a nursery for saints. The sinners make me feel comfortable to be where I am, while the saints urge me to do better. What a cloud of witnesses they are: the people of the catacombs, Augustine, Benedict, Gregory, Bede, Alcuin, Aquinas, Hildegarde of Bingen and Hilda of Whitby, the builders of Chartres and San Clemente, Francis and Dominic, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, Neri, Loyola, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, El Greco, Pascal, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins... they all feel like family to me.

If any one of them came to Sydney next week, they would be more comfortable sitting in St Mary's Cathedral than they would anywhere else in the city. We would share the kiss of peace, as family. When I sit there in the cathedral each Sunday waiting for the sung Mass to commence (with luck, it will be Palestrina or Victoria), I always look up at the first of the historical windows, which celebrates the first official Mass in the colony, in 1803, and I commune with those pioneer Catholics who started it all here. I salute them and give thanks. Then I let my eyes roam around the carved heads - there must be hundreds of them - at the base of the arches in the cathedral. These are my people, unnamed and forgotten to history, the men and women of our past. Only after I have saluted them do I turn my mind to my very own, the family and friends for whom I pray each day, but especially at the Sunday Mass; because praying for the dead and thus communing with them is a necessary part of the Catholic experience. We do not let go of our dead.

Nor do we let go of our world. Our faith is incarnational and sacramental, it speaks to us through our bodies. Washed with water, anointed with oil, fed with bread and wine, we hear bells and organs and hymns, see the colours of glass and vestments and flowers, smell incense and candlewax, taste Lenten fasts and Communion wine, speak litanies and prayers, touch cross and beads.

Robert Dessaix once remarked that Catholic poets seemed to have a material imagination. I think he meant that their religion had made them sacramental - in the sense that a sacrament is an 'outward and visible sign' of something else. Whether this is so, I cannot say for certain. Certainly what I can say is that to be a Catholic is to feel the whole of creation as an expression, a sign, a sacrament, if you will, of God's presence. Our God is everywhere.

I often meditate on a young tree that grows in the street opposite my home, especially in the springtime, when fresh life pushes through its thin branches and thrusts new green leaves to the sky. Thus I experience God as a verb, rather than as a noun, the continuing energies of his creative self reaching me and touching me through a tree. The painter John Olsen records in his diaries that he tried being an atheist for a few days but he had to give it up, it flattened the world out. Yeats said that the Whiggish 'levelling, rancorous rational sort of mind never looked out of the eye of drunkard or eye of saint' - it never looked out of eye of artist, either.

I am not claiming that all great artists have been Catholics. What I am saying is that the Catholic imagination enriches my experience of the world, making it dense, mysterious, layered with meanings and splendours. The world is charged with the grandeur of God; it will flame out...turn but a stone and start a wing.

Is this sense of the intensity of reality somehow the source of another element of the Catholic experience: we make jokes? The feeling that reality is vaster and more oceanic than what we can comprehend surely reduces our self-importance. To make jokes you have to have a close grip on the ridiculosity of humankind. So an imagination which deflates human importance is likely to savour a good joke. Is this what makes us jokers?

What can be said for certain is that among the Christian denominations it is the Catholics who make the jokes. There is a saying that in Australian history Anglicans made the laws, Presbyterians made the money, Methodists did the work and Catholics made the jokes. Les Murray has said that what attracted him to the church was his discovery that Catholics were the only bunch of Christians who made jokes about religion. I noticed too that in the great bicentennial history, Australians: A Historical Library, there is in all its eleven volumes only one joke; it is a Catholic joke. There is still, I think, only one church history in Australia with an index listing for jokes; it is a history of Australian Catholics.

What we have witnessed in our lifetime is a grown-up Catholicism.

One aspect of this was its anti-legalism. At times this could become antinomian - simply to obey the rules was no longer good enough if you were to be a grown-up Catholic. But this could degenerate into an attitude that no discipline was worthwhile. It must be said that this movement was accelerated by officially scrapping some immemorial rules, such as meatless Fridays, the Communion fast and Lenten rigours. At some point in the 1960s, as David Lodge wrote, Hell disappeared; we had ceased believing in it, at least for the sorts of things we did. We had lost our sense of sin.

Guilt, once a defining element of the Catholic experience, began to fade. With guilt went the need for frequent confessions. To offset that, the Eucharist, now experienced as a communal prayer rather than attended as a duty, became a healing, forgiving event: by his wounds we are healed, there at Mass. Perhaps I have said enough to suggest why I am still a Vatican II Catholic. One last thought. Most of my friends, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, are lapsed Catholics. Noticeably, what they have kept from their Catholic experience (apart from the jokes) is a passion for social justice. The historian George Shaw has suggested that justice advocacy has been a distinctive contribution of Catholics to Australian history.

Certainly a connected line of concern for social justice runs through our history, from Polding's concern for the convicts and his advocacy of Aboriginal rights to our present day, which makes me affirm that we have never accepted the Calvinist identification of the rich and successful with the godly. We never fell for the furphy which equates Christianity with respectability. We knew, as Manning Clark saw, that the saint and the larrikin could exist in the same person. Our Jesus was a radical, not a suburban bank manager; our faith, one that sought justice. In Australian history we were the outsiders, the first ethnics and so creators of a pluralist, multicultural society.

Finally and fundamentally, to speak the secret of my heart to you, my brother and sisters of the household: I am still Catholic because I find Jesus Christ there and because I am sure that Jesus, saviour, brother and friend, would not want me to be anywhere else.

Though the stars run distracted
And from wounds deep rancours flow,
While the mystery is enacted
I will not let you go.

Edmund Campion has been a priest for most of his life, serving in various Sydney parishes and teaching church history at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, he has been a judge of many literary awards. His books include Catholic Voices and Great Australian Catholics, both published by Aurora Books/David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne. In 2003 he published Lines of My Life: Journal of a Year (Penguin) to some acclaim. He is having enormous fun writing Books Etcetera for Online Catholics.

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