What makes us Catholics?

At Mass yesterday morning – Divine Mercy Sunday – we were all given the little cards devised by the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. On one side is the famous quotation from Blessed John Henry Newman that starts “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another…” On the other side are several precepts that “as a Catholic I am called to [practise]”.

They include prayer, forgiving others, loving my neighbour as myself, celebrating the sacraments regularly, using the gifts I have been given wisely and sharing with others “the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.” Apart from the mention of the sacraments (which High Anglicans would also accept) there is nothing in this list that is specifically Catholic rather than generally “Christian.” They are high general ideals and if we Christians did live them properly we would change the world.

But what gives a Catholic identity? A member of the Ordinariate would immediately answer: obedience to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. So perhaps I would have added to the list above: “Loyalty to Rome.” That was what Saints John Fisher and Thomas More lost their heads for, after all. Their opponents who followed the new Protestant faith would have agreed to everything listed on the little cards. Mention of Rome gives a certain hard edge to the other precepts, almost a suggestion of divisiveness. Perhaps that is why it was not included.

Not to carp, I was glad to see at the top of the list the one about “sharing with others the joy of knowing Jesus Christ”. This is something that we Catholics are not generally good at; we leave it to the evangelicals to want to share the fervour of Christian faith. We can get preoccupied by “truth” at the expense of “charity”, forgetting that they are both sides of the same coin; the one depends on the other. In this connection I had lunch the other day with an elderly convert. He had written a book about the Second Vatican Council and exposed the unsoundness of liberal theologians such as Karl Rahner. He confessed to me, “I was shocked when I realised I had actually begun to hate Rahner himself, rather than his ideas; the sinner as well as the sin.” This is the temptation of orthodoxy.

“Use the gifts I have been given wisely”; again, this needs more emphasis. At my school, it was A level grades that were emphasised; if you didn’t get the grades it was assumed you didn’t have the gifts. That’s why Newman’s quotation is so important: it tells whoever reads it that they have a specific gift, a task, something entrusted to them that they alone can perform. It catapults one away and above the trappings of scholastic success. I only discovered it in middle age and it was a revelation to me.

Another Newman quotation I love is, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” It is meant in the context of a Christian life, of course. Another convert friend asked me recently what being a Christian meant; I answered “Metanoia”; the requirement to change often, always more in the direction of Christ. As I type this I have noticed an article in the current Sunday Telegraph magazine. The headlines run: “How to change your life in a week.” Apparently this can be done by a yoga retreat, a macrobiotic diet, an ayurvedic detox, digestive healing and an anti-aging week in Tuscany. They all look so simple – and quick. Not cheap though: the Tuscan venture costs £1,650; the guilt of spending so much on myself – even in the Tuscan sunshine – would cause me stress. Conveniently, a “stress-busting week” is also on offer.

With all these possibilities, who would sign up to being a Christian? Loving one’s neighbour is hard work; so is forgiving one’s enemies; so is regular Confession. Yet like St Peter I am inclined to say, “Where else would I go?” I have put the little card, signed, in my handbag.