The message arrived unexpectedly in my Facebook inbox, dealing with an even more unexpected subject: Church law. It was from a high school classmate of mine, someone with whom I haven’t spoken with in a dozen years. (When I wrote and asked her if I could tell this story I promised I’d call her Amy, so: let’s call her “Amy.”) It read something like this:
Hi Keith. How are you doing? I know we haven’t talked for a long time, but I have a few questions about baptizing my son. Right now my husband and I are deciding which religious path to choose for our family. We have faith in God and Christ but aren’t quite sure what Church we belong with… We definitely discussed religion before getting married and having children, but we’ve evolved as a couple. I guess in seeing our children we saw God, also. We both grew up Catholic, but I would like to have a baptism at home for my son with a minister from a local church that did my grandmother’s funeral. If we decide to join the Catholic Church, will my son be able to receive his holy communion as well as the other sacraments in the Catholic Church? Lots of questions I know, but I’d really appreciate your help. Thank you.
I almost couldn’t believe it: was this really a question about Church law conveyed through Facebook?! At first glance, yes. My friend was asking about permissions, validations and regulations and the applications of rules. But as I sat with her message and considered my response I realized she was asking about more than just some quasi-legalistic problem about Church membership; she was asking about how she – and the rest of her family – could be in relationship with God.
It might seem like an unexpected subject, but after a handful of years as a Jesuit I can say: her question is common one.
It’s anything but rare for me to see friends and family struggle to unthread the strange and complex intertwinings of religion and spirituality these days. Especially in the midst of full (and loving) lives: marriage, work commitments, the birth of children, caring for aging parents, the stress that transition brings. I see it within my own family, where I’ve noted that my siblings are struggling to understand how God (which for many of them equals Church) might be relevant to their lives at all. Even more so when these lives become more complicated with each passing year. Wasn’t life easier when we were younger? After five years as a Jesuit it’s no longer surprising to be on the receiving end of spiritual questions like these, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gotten much easier to answer. How do I answer a question like Amy’s – one that is so intensely personal, one that it seems best handled directly between God and her? I don’t know.
But as I stared at my computer screen, contemplating an erudite and edifying response, turning over my heart’s soil in search of some buried gem, something – as it seems to, most times – got turned up. This time it was words from a California bishop, one who gave very succinct instructions to those working in his diocese: “People will be coming to you in good faith,” he said, “don’t replace good faith with bad.”
Amy’s search for God and God’s role in the life of her young family is a singular grace. And when I read her message, and the request and the desire those words convey, in the light the bishop’s instructions it helps me see things (the Church, the people of God, my family, myself) as they are. “Seeing our children, we’ve seen God,” Amy wrote. How wonderful. How mysterious.
Amy came to me as she is: questioning, curious, open to growth. I tried to imitate her spirit as I wrote her back. And I hope she meets someone at her local parish that sees this for what it is: a journey towards good faith, made in good faith.