from the Secretary General

On Being catholic

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

No, it’s not a typographical error. The last word in the title is meant to be spelled with a lowercase “c.” It’s a rather respectable adjective, though not so very commonly used. My dictionary defines it as:

1. broad or wide–ranging tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broadminded; liberal.
2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.

Of course, spelled with an uppercase “C,” it usually means, according to my dictionary:

1. of or pertaining to a Catholic church, especially the Roman Catholic Church 2. pertaining to the Western Church 3. a member of a Catholic church, especially of the Roman Catholic Church.

A similar ambiguity exists for me when I tell people I’m a New Yorker. By that I mean to say I was born in New York City. However, I wasn’t born in New York County, one of the five boroughs of New York City, but in the borough of the Bronx. And, when I speak to other residents of New York State, they rightly claim to be New Yorkers, too, but without any connection to the city of the same name.

“American” is just as confusing. People born in the United States of America tend to call themselves “Americans,” but what about people born in North America, Central America and South America? In fact, when most of them say “americano,” they do mean someone from the Western Hemisphere.

Every distinct sense of the same word is equally legitimate. It’s important to realize that my favorite usage of a word isn’t its exclusive meaning, especially a rich, complex and ambiguous word like “catholic.”

I was raised “Catholic,” meaning I was baptized a Christian according to the rite of the Roman Catholic Church and grew up keeping Roman Catholic practices, receiving Catholic sacraments and following Christian doctrines.

During 26 years working with CNEWA, I came to understand and appreciate that I was a member of one of the Catholic family of churches and had experienced only one of multiple different ways of prayer, sacramental life, piety, customs and discipline.

Over these years, getting to know, respect and love so many “Orthodox” (with an uppercase “O”), the importance of also being “catholic” — that is, part of the whole Christian church — certainly came to the fore.

Of course, we “Catholics” are also “orthodox” (lowercase), just as “Orthodox” are also “catholic.” That’s what we all profess when we affirm that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

Increasingly, though, my mind and heart are drawn to the consciousness of the greater unity, not only of all followers of Christ — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical and others — but also of all the believers of the one God of Abraham, of all men and women of good will and of all the human family.

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