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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Holiness knows no religious boundaries

I was raised by a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father. I am the proud alumnus of an Episcopalian high school and the resident of a largely Jewish neighborhood. Needless to say, I was not raised in a religious bubble.

Accordingly, my Catholicism looks a little unconventional. It certainly is not doctrinaire. I look to the Pope for spiritual guidance but say the Lord’s Prayer like a Protestant. I’m baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church but I have also known from a young age that Oct. 31 is not only Halloween, but also Reformation Day. Though I’ve kept an overnight vigil at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the closest connection I’ve ever felt to God was praying at the Western Wall on the other side of the city.

Understandably, I have always defied easy religious classification. In high school, I always got the sense that my non-Catholic classmates saw me as the “Catholic kid.” In my first month at Notre Dame, I got caught looking like a fool at Mass as I stood still and confused while everyone else in the chapel started dramatically beating their chest and chanting “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault!” You see, most of the religious services I’d attended in the recent past were Episcopalian and — in my experience — Episcopalians don’t do that. I’ve even been mistaken for Jewish on multiple different occasions. One good friend had a Mandela moment in which she described — in great detail — my bar mitzvah that she could have sworn she attended but, obviously, had never happened. Back in Jerusalem, an Orthodox rabbinical student implored me to “come home to Israel.”

If I’ve learned anything from my experience, it is that nit-picky dogmatic details are not what matter. There isn’t just one way to holiness. Some of the most moral people I know don’t believe in a god at all. But believers and non-believers alike can always learn from others’ beliefs and practices. Maybe we absorb some of them along the way. Or maybe we don’t, but learn that, even though we think differently, we’re more alike than we realize.

I was afraid to write this column. Religion is an explosive topic; in Northern Ireland, for example, intra-Christian tensions helped cause a war. But when it comes to religions, there shouldn’t be anything to fear. After all, most people I’ve encountered follow some encapsulation of the Golden Rule as their highest moral law. Sure, there could be some points of disagreement. Does God exist? If so, was Jesus his son? Is the host actually the body and blood of Christ? Should priests get married? We can — and should — talk about all of that, respectfully. But I don’t think it’s the wider point.

While I do love a good rendition of “The Canticle of the Turning,” my favorite hymn is an Episcopalian tune called “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” One of the final refrains goes like this, in reference to Christian saints: “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains or in shops or at tea. For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

I like to think the saints referenced in the song are not the religious warriors, but rather the good, ordinary and holy people who love their neighbors as themselves, who help the frail elder cross the street, who greet everyone they meet with a genuine smile and a handshake, no matter that person’s background. That is the nature of true holiness, more so than any obscure point of doctrine.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.