Just days after a New York Times review announced “the Roman Catholic Church’s decline,” Pat Gohn — a Boston-area Catholic wife, mother, writer, editor, and catechist — advises going “All In” with the Catholic faith.
“Most people yearn for somewhere to put their trust in an unstable world,” she writes in her new book, All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters. People look for many substitutes for God but wind up with only “a lame understudy for God.” We talk more about her book and the advice contained within.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: At a time when we keep hearing about the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) and being “spiritual but not religious,” why would you think there’s an audience to whom you can make this case for being “All In” for Catholicism?
Pat Gohn: I think there will always be an audience for conversations about what is meaningful in our lives. Why not give the reasons for my own faith? I try to do that in All In.My simplest answer for being both spiritual and religious comes from the example of Jesus. The fuller answer comes from the examples of joyful Catholics I have met in my life.I look to Jesus often in the book. Jesus was both spiritual and religious. He was not only spiritual — meaning he had an interior life, a life of prayer that led to his actions — but he was a pious Jew. He didn’t neglect the traditions and rituals of his faith. He participated in the life of the Jewish community. Yet the Gospel that he preached spoke not only to the Jews, but to others as well. Many non-Jewish people also became his followers. His message was taken up by the Apostles and members of the early Church, many of whom were willing to die for this faith. That’s all in.
Two thousand-plus years later, there are still many followers of Jesus, and in particular, Catholic Christians, whose very lives make the case for the beauty and richness of Catholicism.
Lopez: You describe faith as being “a lot like love.” And you say, “Faith is more often caught than taught.” What does that mean for people who have not “caught” faith? And does this comparison risk the danger of suggesting that both love and faith are illnesses?
Gohn: Let me tend to your second question first. As you know, there are many ways to define caught. In the context of the book, I’m using that word caught in the sense of being ignited, or catching the flame that causes something to burn. This is the sense of faith as being something attractive that catches a person’s attention and engages their interest and imagination and stirs a passion to know more.
Sometimes teaching can produce that that kind of fervor, but more often there’s something within one’s own experience that first sparks a flame, and then one pursues more education or guidance to fan the flame.
I share in the book that my own faith caught fire in experiences with God’s Word, in community with others, and in moments of prayer inspired by beauty. These moments of being caught, in another sense of word, of being captured by a moment with God, or an experience of catching onto God’s presence, are how I would most describe these experiences as they are linked to faith. These experiences moved me to desire more, and to try to grow in my faith in God over the course of a lifetime.
Now to your first question: What does this say to someone who has not yet caught faith? I think that’s relevant to this book and why I wanted to write it. I firmly believe that God desires us to encounter him in a personal way — to allow our hearts to be caught or captured by divine love. I also believe that we can ask God for that experience if we desire it. And I believe that God will somehow answer that heartfelt prayer. I do believe, also, that the Catholic Church’s Mass, prayers, and spiritual practices help to lead one to that holy encounter.
Finally, just a word about faith being a lot like love. We may learn about love from what read, or watch, or hear. But we when we experience love, when we receive love and give love, then we truly know its value. A Catholic’s faith is designed, ultimately, to lead us to the source of love itself: God. And to spread that love to others.
Lopez: You write that “all in is confident certainty. It is assurance, and trust. When it comes to being a Catholic Christian — a follower of Jesus — belonging to the Catholic Church is the confident anchor that holds one steady. The Church is a stronghold of reliable truth, and sure footing on solid ground in a troubled world.” Many news stories and commentaries today suggest the Church is not as steady and strong as you make her out to be. I’m of course thinking of back-and-forths on Amoris Laetitia and maybe anything involving Pope Francis.
Gohn: We sometimes view the Church from our own private or local vantage point based on experience in the Church. That might also mean we view the Church through our own lens, which may be dulled or obscured by our own hurts, suspicions, or disappointments with the Church. And please know that I mean no disrespect with regard to what those hurts, suspicions, or disappointments might be, as I have had my own.
Yet I’ve learned over time that my own view often prevents me from seeing the whole Church. And I am deceived if I only see the Church as an entity made up of the human persons currently baptized, and whatever their current list of foibles, failures, and grievous sins may be. The Church is human, yes, but it is also divine, because it wedded to Christ. The Church remains the Bride of Christ, and as I like to say, to date there has been no divorce. I take up this discussion in the book on a few occasions.
Yet for the purpose of this conversation, I think we need to see the “big picture” of the Church in its fullness — in terms of the whole of its membership — in three ways. The Church Militant is all the faithful on earth. The Church Suffering is all the faithful souls being purified in purgatory. And the Church Triumphant is all the saints in heaven. This is the Church worthy of our confident assurance. It is so much bigger and more majestic and more promising than our current pains and trials on earth, both within and outside of the Church.
This is not only the Church currently led by Pope Francis, but it is also the Church of saints and the martyrs throughout its long history. This is the Church whose Catechism is based on two thousand years of meditation on the Word of God. This is the Church that holds to a Deposit of Faith that is unchanging from the time of Christ and waits in joyful hope for the coming of Kingdom.
This is also the Church that Jesus assured that the gates of hell would not prevail against, the people with whom he promised to be with always, and the Church that received the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide it.
We have to keep the whole of the Church — and her ongoing mission from Christ — in view as we journey with her today. Having an eternal perspective helps us stay confident in solving our current problems and disagreements within the Church.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly e-mail here.