I promise you this is not a post about the early Church being accused of cannibalism. Because that’s gross.
Rather, a number of news headlines caught my attention yesterday that tie in to a question that I’ve frequently discussed with my husband. That question: what makes a Catholic a Catholic? In the first article we have the words of Pope Francis during Sunday’s Angelus. In a nutshell, he cautions us to be in the world but not of the world, or else “the salt will lose it’s flavor”. What is the flavor he speaks of? I bet you are already listing in your head a number of things that give Catholics “flavor”, but bear with me a minute.
The other article I saw yesterday is about an incident in China where a subway full of people flee a foreigner who fainted. A number of reasons were given in defense of the exodus; xenophobia is the one that caught my attention. You see, I’m currently reading a book about the mission of the China Jesuits. It’s fascinating, because the story reads like an adventure novel. Plus, I’m a freak about history. What I didn’t realize is how difficult it was for the Jesuits to set up a stable operation in China. It took them almost 50 years to get rolling, mainly because the Chinese were hard nuts to crack. From what I understand foreigners were only allowed on a limited visitor basis (primarily for trade reasons), and were expelled after trading season concluded. In order to make any connections whatsoever Matteo Ricci first had to become reasonably fluent in the native language; after, the adoption of the literati attire and hair style helped the missionaries blend in. What really got the attention of the Chinese intellectuals was the Jesuits’ commanding knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, and Eastern philosophy. This knowledge gave the Jesuits their in, and they used it to subtly introduce Catholic doctrine. The manner in which the Jesuits employed this integration caused all sorts of controversy, and it plagued them during the entire missionary effort in China.
I don’t believe that the Chinese people involved in the subway incident acted out of xenophobia any more than those encountered by the Jesuits; I’m pretty sure the answer to both is much more complex. But what gets me is rooted in action: the actions of the fleeing passengers and the actions of the Jesuits in winning the favor of the literati. Obviously the subway passengers are being excoriated for not helping the injured man. The China Jesuits were repeatedly accused of obfuscating Catholic doctrine to make it fit with Eastern philosophy. In other words, the Jesuits were sacrificing Christian flavor to gain Chinese acceptance, and they paid the price for it.
Let’s go back to that mental list you were making earlier. I can’t read your mind, so I don’t know what exactly you were thinking, but it probably involved actions that transcend the “Christian” label: helping the poor, feeding the hungry. If we go a little more strictly “Christian” we can add bible study, prayer, and communal worship services. I’m sure the list can go on. But what really distinguishes a Catholic? What is our flavor? I think the answer lies in the increasingly frequent exhortation by Pope Francis to “encounter” Christ, to have a deep relationship with Him.
Catholics profess, in the Sacrifice of the Mass, an encounter with the substantial form of Christ. We are not celebrating a memory, but a present, physical reality. And that reality wreaks beautiful havoc on our lives. The New Testament is one story after another about people encountering Jesus and being transformed. Through this encounter (some more physically proximate but all in a state of permanence) human lives are radically altered, and it shows in their actions. The same applies to us. The reality of tasting like a Catholic is as much in the way we think, the way we see, and the way we hear as it is the way we act. Essentially it is in how much we let Christ transform us versus how much we try to fit Christ where we want Him.
Are Catholics inherently better than other Christians at this? Absolutely not. We do have the Sacraments, which are the best aids to transformation in the business, hands down. That being said, there are ecclesial communities that do things in a way that we need to pay closer attention to (and, thankfully we are!). But, as Pope Francis is always pointing out, if you call yourself Christian, it is your encounter with Christ that flavors you. It takes a lot of work, and no small amount of time, but if we give everything we have and are to that encounter–be it in the Sacraments or our everyday moments–we will find ourselves flavored with the saints. And that’s pretty darn tasty.