What does it mean to be Catholic?
This is not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, it means that one is a member of the Catholic Church, believes what the Church teaches, and does what Catholics do. On the other hand, to be catholic — and here the lowercase is intentional — is to be open, tolerant, and universal in one’s interests and sympathies. Both definitions are right and both apply to Providence College. But the most radical sense of being Catholic is to view the created world as a sacrament of the divine, that is, as something that both points to and makes present God’s saving grace.
This is a radical claim and implies a reconciliation of what otherwise appears to be opposed. But it is one that derives from our faith in Jesus Christ who in his own person effected that reconciliation. Jesus is both the son of Mary and the Son of God, and as such is fully human and fully divine.
This is what is meant by the doctrine of the Incarnation, a word that literally means taking on flesh. In Jesus, God took on our humanity and made it his own. In this way the humanity of Jesus reveals his divinity. It also changes our understanding of the relationship between the Creator and his creation. For if the humanity of Jesus — his flesh and blood — can reveal and make present his divinity, then creation is raised to a new dignity by virtue of God’s self revelation. This becomes especially apparent when we consider the church.
The faults and failings of the church are all too apparent, and its humanity, its creatureliness if you will, is certainly evident in the people who belong to it. Yet Catholics believe that despite its limitations the church has been chosen and sanctified by God to be a sacrament of Jesus Christ, to embody his person and mission and to both point to him and make him present in the work that it does in his name.
It is for this reason that Catholics believe that bread and wine at Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ, that pouring water on a child’s brow in baptism renders her a new creation in Christ, and that a young couple’s marriage vows transforms their intimate love for one another into an expression of God’s love for us all.
Thus, there is a paradox at the heart of the sacramental vision for what appears to be ordinary, a mere creature, is in fact extraordinary by virtue of having been transformed by God’s saving grace. In a more limited way, the same could be said about a poet’s words, a doctor’s care, and a friend’s forgiveness for all that is good comes from God, reflects the goodness of God, and points back to God.
To view the world in this way — to see the world of people and things as capable of revealing God and to understand that God’s grace can suffuse even seemingly secular realities — is to regard all things as potentially holy. And because they are we are required to live and act in particular ways.
How we treat one another and especially the least among us, what we profess and hold to be true, how we pray and worship, the questions we ask and the careers we pursue are no mere accidents nor matters of insignificance They are rather measures of the grace we have been given and of our fidelity to God’s call in our lives, and as such, they are the ways in which we are meant to transform the world.