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The newspapers and magazines are awash with reviews and reports on the new militant atheism that is making sport of religion and lumping Catholics in the same soup with fanatical jihadists. The message from these apostles of a godless scientism is hardly fresh, but it seems to be getting great press and a new respectability. However, once one is past their tired attacks on the concept of a God-centered universe, the writers have little to offer but a vision of human life as a brief and meaningless consciousness in an equally meaningless universe. They give us an extended echo of Thomas Hobbes’s famous description of life as “brutal, nasty, and short.”
All this media chatter, however, has started us thinking about what exactly Catholics have to offer. What is it that gives meaning to our lives? What follows is a partial list.
For openers, in direct contrast to their “harsh, cold world” viewpoint, we Catholics have a vision where every single thing in our lives is vibrant with meaning.
We Catholics have an intellectual structure that informs us about our existence and the big questions of who we are and what life’s purpose is. This theological structure can be taught to young children and can enchant the minds of our greatest intellectuals.
We Catholics have a history. We are part of a long parade of individuals marching through the centuries, trying with varying degrees of success to follow in the footsteps of our Leader.
We Catholics have these wonderful feast days, like Easter and Christmas, that with the Church’s help we can save for our children from being totally “Disney-fied.” And we have others, like the Epiphany and All Saints’ Day, which punctuate the year, give structure to the passage of time and make us rich with stories.
We Catholics have all these generous people -- priests and other religious -- who have dedicated their lives to helping us get through our lives.
We Catholics have a rich tableau of saints who have already gained the kingdom of heaven and who are there rooting us on. From austere mystics to social activists, from John of the Cross to Mother Teresa, together they enliven our imaginations and inspire our lives. Not just plaster saints, they are flesh and blood examples to turn to when life gets messy and ugly.
We Catholics can join together weekly and even daily with friends and strangers in the Mass and have a sense of human solidarity and shared purpose. Our individual parish communities and our feeling of connectedness to our parish community is a constant reminder of how we are connected through Christ to all the world’s people.
We Catholics have time-tested rules, like “take care of your children,” “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” and “be honest in your dealings with others.” They point the way and save us from having to start from scratch and learn everything the hard way. Call it our Catholic moral compass.
We Catholics hold fast to a vision of the family as our primary focus and as our means to sanctity. As such, family is a metaphor for our larger connections in the world. And, therefore, we defend the family as a pillar of civilization.
We Catholics “own” a world of art treasures -- paintings, sculpture, music, poetry and now film -- that expands and quickens our understanding and devotion.
We Catholics have a liturgy, among humanity’s great works of art, which guides our worship and helps us reach for God.
We Catholics can travel all over the globe, be it Brazil or Thailand or Poland, and be at home at Mass with fellow worshipers.
We Catholics have a vast, institutional Church, which like us is imperfect, but mirrors our own struggle with sin and weakness and our own aspirations to fulfill the plan of the Creator.
We Catholics have a concept of work as the means of our becoming closer to God. Whether scrubbing a floor, tapping at a computer or flipping burgers, our work can be transformed into God’s work.
We Catholics have a place, a mental vantage point, from which to consider and evaluate the affairs of the world. While we are called to be good and faithful citizens, we have an identity that transcends national boundaries. As a result, we are more than just Americans or Italians or Chinese. Frightening as it is, we are each called to be a saint. We are, then, first and foremost, pilgrims seeking our true home. This identity provides a reference point for looking at the big and small events of the day.
And we Catholics have sacraments, sources of graces and blessings, which signal the key passages in our lives: birth, marriage, death. In the Eucharist, we receive into our own bodies the True Presence.
What divine gifts!
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill.