Returning the "little c" to Catholic

Whether teaching adults in RCIA at my parish or my middle school students in my Catholic school classroom, when it comes time to teach the marks of the Church (that is, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), we always have to have the conversation about what catholic with a “little c” means.

The word catholic with a lowercase c means “universal.” In a world that supports individualism and nationalism in new ways these days thanks to social media, the concept of universality seems to be, like many teachings of the Church, truly countercultural. And I would submit that even within the Catholic Church, we struggle with what it means to be universal as a Church. 

One of the things I love about being a Catholic (with a capital C) is that I can walk into any Church all over the world and fall seamlessly into the Mass. The Second Vatican Council allowed parishes and dioceses in different countries to insert some elements of their own culture into the celebration of Mass, such as saying Mass in the region’s own vernacular and incorporating musical traditions of the region. However, when I go to Mass anywhere other than my own parish, I will hear the same readings and should be able to follow along without any trouble. The structure of the Mass will be the same. I will receive my same Eucharistic Lord. I love this about our Church.

I enjoy this balance between learning and experiencing a community’s own culture but still having the commonality and unity of what it means to be Catholic. I love being able to go into a predominantly Hispanic parish and hear guitars, drums and the readings in Spanish as well as attending a more Anglo community and hearing the strong organs and choirs. However, more and more, I feel the tension within the Church and her communities. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I know that there are some readers that may look down or cringe at the thought of attending one type of Mass over the other. Like the world around us, the Church seems to also be struggling between desiring individualism but still staying true to the universality of the Church. 

When I volunteered for a year as a missionary with NET Ministries after college, my team and I entered many very different yet similar parishes around the country. We were taught in our training that when we were invited into a parish for a retreat, we should try to adapt to the practices of the community, particularly during Mass. For example, if the parish in this diocese stood during reception of communion, we were to stand during the reception of communion. I’m not sure if this is still something that NET suggests in their training, but I appreciated the rule because it helped support the universality that I am speaking of. We may have our own individual prayer practices, but in that moment, we were the guests of the community. I was not to try to draw attention to myself lest my prayer practices look “better” than that of the community’s. My individual practices were put aside in order to be one with the Church community we were serving. 

As a teacher and music minister who has been in the Church game for a very long time now, I have seen less of the aforementioned attitude towards universality at Mass and more push back on the behalf of congregants and priests alike on optional practices admitted by different dioceses. Being in music ministry, I always check with priests before Mass if they are going to say the Mass slightly differently or omit optional parts of the ritual. More and more, that practice I find is absolutely necessary rather than a courtesy because many priests I find have their particular preferences. 

The purpose of this article is not to call out the flaws that I see when I walk into a parish or with our priests. Nor is it a call to go back to one language so that we may have some kind of unity (even though that unity may be at the risk of not entirely understanding what is going on). Like many things, this is just a call to ask: “can we find a balance?” And can we put our own personal preferences aside at times for the good of the whole? I believe that we can find a balance that allows individuals to demonstrate their personal relationship with God while still including and celebrating the universality of the Church as a whole.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says this about being “little c” catholic: 

“The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.’ The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. ‘Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.’ (CCC 830)

The Catechism then goes on to say: “Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.” (CCC 831) 

I am particularly struck by the phrases “in keeping with the whole” (CCC 830) and “sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race” (CCC 831). I wonder how our outlooks would change if our faith lives were focused more on “in keeping with the whole” and being “sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.” When I go to Mass, I like to think that there is a desire on my part to go and pray with the whole of my community while also bringing my own individual desires to God. I am grateful that our Church allows and creates space for both. 

In a world that feels the push and pull between the focus on individualism and yet at the same time desires everyone to subscribe to a certain norm, how can the Church be that beacon of balance to “the whole human race”? How can we celebrate each community and person’s individuality while still “keeping with the whole”? 

I believe that the documents of Vatican II sought to find this balance. I would challenge us to keep the marks that make us Catholic (big C!) more present in our minds. That is to remember that we are one, holy, catholic (little c), and apostolic. That is what makes us unified as well as unique. These marks are to be celebrated, not pushed aside because of personal preference. Christ is present within each of us but strengthened when we focus on the whole of His body.

Written by the Holy Rukus