Reading, believing, practising

For the ordinary Catholic, called as we are to the priesthood of all believers, reaching the state of a strong belief itself, is a challenge, momentous, at times.

Jun 15, 2024

Making Sense -Emmanuel Joseph

There is a beautiful charge delivered by an ordaining bishop during an ordination of a deacon — Read the Word, Believe what you Read, Teach what you Believe and Practise what you Teach.

The flow of language is as meaningful as it is poetic.

For the ordinary Catholic, called as we are to the priesthood of all believers, reaching the state of a strong belief itself, is a challenge, momentous, at times.

Grappling with the Bible and its many types of books within — historical, gospel, epistles, books of law and poetry and prophecies — trying to make sense of what’s literal and what’s not, or if logic can or should be applied to it at all.

In an age where TikTok is full of anti- Christian rhetoric, a one liner can sometimes throw doubt on 10 years of catechism.

Did Judas hang himself or fell and burst open? Did God create man first, or animals? How many of each animal went into Noah’s Ark? Why does the last line of 2 Chronicles repeat into the first lines of Ezra? Why are the passages in 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 practically identical?

While we are taught things like stewardship of this world, the value of life, the Sacraments and relationships — familial, communal, pastoral — these are the arguments that are, by design, meant to plant seeds of doubt in our faith in the Word.

If it is hard to Believe, how much harder must it be to Teach?

We already have strong and active groups that work to debunk misconceptions and engage in both apologetics and polemics.

Your average parish priest is more than armed to answer these, with advanced training in theology, the social context and historical significance of the teaching, law and event, for a comprehensive understanding of the Bible.

What more to be a Catholic — unlike our younger Evangelical counterparts, we have the additional dimension of tradition, history that seem almost out of modern-day reality as a school scene out of the pages of Harry Potter — or as a priest friend calls it, “the bells and smells”.

In a time where literacy was low and colours was used to evoke emotion, the need to wear black cassocks to indicate mourning our Saviour, or gold to indicate celebration, or red to show sacrifice, was more understandable.

“Can God not hear us if we wear normal clothes?” is something another friend, a wellknown social commentator, used to ask me, about not only Catholic, but any clerical garb.

But the connection of liturgical colours of cloth, or even celebrating Mass on Sunday, or offertory processions, praise and worship, Bible-preaching, or the Sacraments, are all part of the same Tradition, chosen and framed by different people at different points of history, for different reasons. As we learn in Acts, our early Christian leaders were breaking bread and preaching before the Gospels were even written down.

Our practices, rites and rituals are beautiful but they can be a bit confusing — why do Orthodox, Catholic and some Anglicans call their priests Father? Why is Kyrie sung in Greek unlike other traditional prayers — in Latin?

While these might not be playing in every young Catholic’s mind, it would, if unsatisfactorily answered, lead those curious enough to ask them, to find other religious direction, one that is less ‘complicated’, and easier to make sense of in our simplified, dataand- logic-driven world.

Then comes the social aspect of things — in a secular world pressured to conform to the politically correct, where people have freedom to define themselves, their gender expression, even their pronouns, and whose congregations empathise with many of these ideals while not necessarily practising them, how tolerant are we allowed, or expected, to be, as individual Catholics, members of our community or as citizens? In other words, how much of our values need to intersect with that of the Church for us to continue to comfortably belong?

These are loaded, landmine-type questions that, to be honest, most of us are just too afraid to ask or push for, with many just mousing away to parishes that are less or more firebrand to their tolerance of heat of hellfire, or aligned to the flavour of Catholicism most aligned to our own general values — drawing from shades of love and acceptance, tones set from present leadership of our Holy Father.

Is it wrong then to not want to be part of the discussions, either the angry, borderline schismatic ones, nor the uncomfortable attempts of the Church to reach out and explain its position?

Is this cafeteria Catholicism? Maybe, but is not the heart of our identity, that sets us apart from the more End of Days type preachers, one more gentle to rebuke, slow to anger, quick to love?

The Church today, after all, is barely recognisable in almost every form after Vatican II, in our dealings with each other, and with other faiths and communities, with a much larger focus on laity and their participation, rather than the more rigid, clerical-driven organisation it was.

Clumsy or unrefined as they may be, these attempts to understand the world would have been inconceivable just six or seven decades ago, with questioners branded heretic, and schismatic movements following that.

Perhaps, while waiting for a definitive answer, trying to practise what we Teach, as much as we can, to Believe that in due course, any two polar positions can be more reconciliatory than combative.

Isn’t that, at least, a form of Faith? 

(Emmanuel Joseph oversees IT as his 9-5 job and from 5-9, he serves a few NGOs, think tanks and volunteer groups. He serves as an advisor for Projek Dialog and is a Fellow with the Institute of Research and Development of Policy)

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