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Why I am still a Catholic

God brings us into this diverse community for a purpose.
It is a purpose that demands I allow the Spirit to work as she wills and to stand aside and let God create in ways I simply cannot imagine.

by Paul O'Shea

I'll confess up front - I love the coming together of Catholics and other Christians from so many backgrounds and experiences, the creation and creating of a faith-filled community, the ritual splendour, rich musical heritage, Franciscan tradition, solid scripture based preaching and solemn simplicity of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church that I am blessed to share in my parish - St Francis of Assisi Paddington in Sydney's inner eastern suburbs. I love it! It is unapologetically Catholic in an evangelical sense - this is who we are, come and experience the power of the Gospel and the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. Sounds almost too good to be true!

And yet, since I stumbled on Paddington on the first Sunday of Advent 1994 in a search for a spiritual home, it has been anything but a "bells and smells" trip. Let me explain.

I grew up in a left of centre Catholic family in Dubbo via Newcastle (Dad was a teacher with the Department). The O'Shea's were, like many other families in the parish, regular Mass goers, contributors to the planned giving, sometime members of the Parish Council, fixer upperers for the convent and school and ever-hopeful that the New Pentecost prayed for by Good Pope John would become reality. My parents were members of the prayer group, read the Bible and theology and endured their childrens' unending lack of enthusiasm during morning and evening prayer time. They have earned their place in heaven!

What I gained from mum and dad was twofold: firstly, faith without works is dead - put your money where your mouth is. Secondly, faith-filled love of the Church never excludes critical analysis and questioning - if in doubt check it out. And above all they taught me the wonderful truth that God's work is greater than mine, and if it is to be so God will make it so. It was very St Teresa: Nada te turbe... "Let nothing disturb you".

My late teens and twenties were spent in Banyo Seminary and with the Teresian Carmelites. For the most part these were happy years and I treasure the memories of many wonderful men and women who were a source of blessing for me. I am convinced that those years during which I was taught by some of Australia's best theologians, scripture scholars and historians, helped me come to a more mature and adult appreciation of my faith and my place within this great and wonderful "spotted bride of Christ". Certainly I was saved from becoming an uncritical little fundamentalist, stunted in mind and heart. I cringe today when I see and hear young people thumping the Bible or yearning for a mythical "Tridentine" past that never existed. I cringe because I know where they are coming from - and where they may end up. I cringe because I see what I could have become.

Studying theology opened my mind (and heart) to a whole new world - tradition. I learned that tradition is an ever evolving organic heritage given to the Church by the Spirit that keeps Christ's body ever young and vibrant. There is nothing static about it. I discovered the beginnings of understanding the truth of Scripture - God's penetrating Word that denies me any opportunity for complacency and "armchair Catholicism", the truly radical reality of Christ speaking in the words of the Gospel. Hearing the Word proclaimed in Eucharist and beyond is both comforting and disturbing. It never leaves me untouched even on my worst days!

My studies under the direction of Teresian Carmelites, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans led me to a great appreciation and love for the Liturgical life of the Church as well as valuing the different paths to unity with the Church that we follow. However it was the witness of several outstanding women that I think, in hindsight, challenged me to grow out of a romantic love affair with Catholicism and grow into a more mature and authentic love. Listening to women talk about the Church - their joys and hopes, frustrations and disappointments - was often hard and at times confrontational and unpleasant, but showed me the Spirit at work in the women of the Church. Here was the Body of Christ too - it also changed the way I understood Mary. Love costs.

And so in 1994 I wandered into St Francis' Parish and I've been there ever since. Why do I stay within the Church? I believe that God brought me into this wonderfully diverse community through my parents and family for a purpose. That purpose is revealed daily through those with whom I share my life, in the classroom and university lecture room, in writing and studying and in the encounters I have with people of faith and people of no faith. That purpose is shown to me in seeing Christ in the poor and the challenge of Christ to do something about the injustices that operate within the Church and society. It is a purpose that demands I allow the Spirit to work as she wills and to stand aside and let God create in ways I simply cannot imagine.

It is this purpose that allows me to worship with my sisters and brothers in all the diversity of the Church's rich traditions - being at home with all the ceremonial of the Roman Rite or the simplicity of Eucharist with a group of Year 12s out in the bush on retreat; celebrating Christ with Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Christians or spending time in reflection with Jews and Muslims. But most importantly God's purpose for me rings through the words of John 1.14 - the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory. God calls me to be another Christ in the world. And it is this purpose I share with every other Christian; it is the noblest of callings, the toughest and most demanding. I cannot do it alone. This is why I stay within the Church - I can't live without my Mother! And I have discovered, she can't live without me. We need each other !


Dr Paul O'Shea is a Sydney REC and member of St Francis of Assisi Parish Paddington.

        Photos by Max Herford
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