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The Spirit of Catholicity

We must always be reminded that Catholicity is not an illusory celebration of sameness, but a courageous approval of inevitable divergences

Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

“All of us … have been baptized in one Spirit, to form one body, and all of us have been given, to drink from the one Spirit.”

It is difficult to overcome our socially-conditioned predisposition to assign people to specific categories and make judgments on an individual person, based primarily on the category where one belongs, and not based on a deeper critical assessment of particular facets that make each human being unique from others, much less on a deliberate understanding of what each person is trying to become.

Such is the tragic consequence of our desire for “efficiency.” It is easier to see “classes of people,” rather than the much harder reality of incomprehensible diversity. As a result, we all tend to live up to our “predetermined categories” — and those who do, are happily deemed to be “conformant,” while those who cannot, are miserably deemed to be “deviant.”

But is it an accurate description of truth? Does belonging to one faith, or not belonging to another make one intrinsically good, or intrinsically evil? Are we always happy being around fellow Catholics, but suspicious and uneasy being around those with beliefs peculiar from our own? Have we been deeply wired to distrust and to act to be protected from incomprehensible diversity?

The stability of our religious identity is founded on setting norms on beliefs and actions congruent with that identity. We establish a system of meanings and a set of socially-motivated — or socially-imposed — doctrines, consequently creating what becomes an immutable moral compass that defines standards for proper living and conduct. We have always been told to behave “this way but not that way because….” Such notions arise from our own experience within Catholic culture, and from our own observations of circumstances outside of it.

The acceptance of diversity therefore, is considered a threat to our catholicity, as if we never understood that to be “catholic” in the early Christian era meant embracing the richness of the varying Christian traditions being nurtured in highly different social contexts. We must always be reminded that Catholicity is not an illusory celebration of sameness, but a courageous approval of inevitable divergences.

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Such are the roots of our own prejudice against different neighbors and communities; against different social classes and against different religions. Of all our wicked biases, it is our discrimination against religion that lacks the most basis, but it can sometimes be the most dangerous. Our nearly fanatical devotion to a belief system will render anybody outside of it to be “evil” and thus “worthy of hell.” And our nearly fanatical devotion to its system of morals will condemn anybody outside of it to be “perverse” and thus to a fate of social rejection and death.

One of the worst perversions we have generated in modern civilization is the abusive propensity to give everyone a label. It is an irony in the history of humanity’s search for deeper comprehension of the Great Mystery, that even our responses in faith to our interpretations of divine revelation — when uncontrolled or misguided — can make one truly evil.

But where does goodness come from?

Every human, it seems, is truly born with the capacity for being good, and the potentiality to do good; faith therefore becomes an expression of goodness, and for many people it provides the framework of teaching goodness. Therefore, faith is not so much the source of goodness, but rather its language. We cannot say “I believe, therefore I am good”; but rather “I am good, I can do good and so I can believe.” Goodness can therefore exist amidst many faiths, or even in the apparent lack of it. Goodness therefore does not have a name, in the same way that God does not have a single name; goodness therefore has many faces, in the same way that the Beloved comes to us in many surprising forms.

The source of goodness is the great Spirit, and with enough mindfulness of our acts of goodness, and sufficient consciousness of ever-changing expressions of goodness through relevant articulations of faith, we are led to the Spirit. “There is diversity of gifts, but the Spirit is the same. There is diversity of ministries, but the Lord is the same. There is diversity of works, but the same God works in all. The Spirit reveals his presence in each one with a gift that is also a service.”

Our journey of faith and service, only the Spirit truly knows.

Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

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